The Catholic Thing
Hispanic Catholics and the American Experiment Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 13 June 2011

I met an avid TCT reader last week at a Washington book event sponsored by The Catholic Thing and others for Cardinal George’s God in Action (Brad Miner’s review is here, if you missed it.) After much experience in Latin America and with Hispanic Catholics here, he believes that the Church in America can learn much from both. No doubt we will, in coming decades, whether we want to or not, given that the American Church will become 50 percent Hispanic.

There are multiple lessons to learn from Hispanics. But they should be the right lessons, not the uncritical or politically correct idealization of a rising immigrant group. There’s much good in Hispanic Catholicism – and much that needs to be supplemented by other Catholic traditions.

To begin with, the vast majority of Hispanic Catholics still participate in communitarian forms of Catholicism – a way of being Catholic rooted in continuity with the past and local parish life. In academic terms, their Catholicism is less linear and rationalist, more story-based and interpersonal.

This is not at all the same thing as we saw in the 1960s. The community, story, and immediacy talked about in America and other developed countries then came from nowhere and was largely in the service of radical elites who were wrestling with individualism, ideology, and alienation. Far from resolving these difficulties, the 1960s Catholic utopianism made things worse by destroying existing community in pursuit of experiments that failed.

Hispanic Catholicism, when it hasn’t been corrupted by campus identity movements and ethnic politics, remains blessedly free from all that. As with other waves of Catholic immigrants, it will have to find a modus vivendi with North American ways and the challenges of living in our hypermodern nation. But if the process goes right, that will be a good thing for Hispanics, and even for America itself.

The Hispanic sense of community mirrors one of the deepest theological renewals from the twentieth century: the recognition of the reality of the People of God as part of the Mystical Body of Christ. These phrases are repeated so often that we tend to think they don’t really mean anything, but they express a Truth from which many other truths flow: that the Church is literally Christ’s body extended through time – and even into the afterlife. As St. Paul puts it, he is the Head and we are the members of that body.

That is something very useful to keep in mind in a nation – and a Church – that can be hyper-individualist and blind to anything but the immediate present. Our culture also tends towards a shallow pragmatism and a naïve faith in technology: we’re already hearing potential candidates for president who say that they don’t care about ideologies, but what works.

    Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas

This seems to sidestep divisive and illusory issues and focus on what’s real and concrete, but there are certain things that cannot be ignored without inviting disaster. As Chesterton once remarked:

The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute. This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.

The Catholic-inspired cultures to our South have been much less susceptible to that temptation than we have been. They reflect deep Catholic insights about our personal relationship with God and continuity with other ages that are often invisible in Canada and the United States.

But that instinctive solidarity needs to be balanced by the Catholic sanity of clear dogmatic definitions and the North American sense of public institutions. There was a time after Vatican II when segments of the Church believed that pastoral care for people could somehow be set against the dogmas and practices of the institution. This was shortsighted and misleading, roughly like believing a doctor is good because he has a good bedside manner, though he knows next to nothing about medical science.

There are analogous problems in Latin Catholicism itself. I visited Chichicastenango in Guatemala a few years ago, a city in the high mountains where the old Mayan and Catholic cultures mingle. Curanderos, native shamans, swing huge censers and send up clouds of incense on the steps of the cathedral to ward off evil spirits. For the people there, God is not, as among us, some distant entity who may or may not impact our lives. For them, the world of the spirit is real and active in our world – a point Cardinal George clarifies, in his own way, in God in Action.

But there are low altars down the main aisle of the cathedral itself – where natives light candles, pour whiskey, and drop chicken feathers in age-old pagan superstition for fertility, protection, and so forth.

This sort of thing is a reminder that popular piety needs to be kept in relation with the Church’s high culture and focus on the patient purification of truth. We all need to be on the path of fuller evangelization, Hispanic Catholics, for all their Catholic history, as well as the rest of us.

Samuel Huntington, who first warned about the coming clash of civilizations, also wrote a book shortly before his death, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. In it he argued that we would be a different – in his view, a worse –nation if our founders were Spanish or Portuguese. Perhaps true, but this does not answer an even more basic question: how are we to resist the deepest threat to our national identity, the lost of the Western Christian heritage on which it is based?

Without that, America will not flourish, or perhaps even survive, and Hispanic Catholicism – if the Church makes the best use of it – may become an unexpected source of renewal for this nation of immigrants. 

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

The Catholic Thing
is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Jorge Romero-Chacon, June 13, 2011
Mr. Royal writes, when referring to a book written by mister Huntington: "In it he argued that we would be a different – in his view, a worse –nation if our founders were Spanish or Portuguese. Perhaps true, but this does not answer ...". That "perhaps true" really hurts Hispanic people's feelings, but in a way, there may be many instances that support his doubt, but there are others that won't.
written by Aeneas, June 13, 2011
Great article Dr. Royal!

But I don't agree with Huntington, I really don't think we would have been worse off with the Spanish or Portuguese as our founders. Maybe not better off, but at least not worse off. Actually I think that that argument over who would have been better as our founders would make a great TCT article!
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., June 13, 2011
It's a simple fact that the Iberian peninsula did not have a Magna Carta or any other partof the Anglo-Saxon tradition that formed the value system that makes us American's. And anyone who wants to connect this phenomenon to religion should remember that the Magna Carta came from Catholic England. There eare several other aspects of this question that rarely occur to people who don't live where there are many epople who come to this country and have no intention of becoming Americans. I must inform those who are unaware of this that many people already here and those now coming have been proseltyzed with the belief that much of America rightly beongs to Mexico, and many also also being to cast aside Catholicism for Marxism, right under the nose of the Chruch leaders, who ignore a pamphlet for children called The ABC's of being Chicano, which tells children that A is for Azatlan (the land that rightly beongs to Mexico, and the when they reach K it is is for Karl Marx. And those goading the students to take down the US flag at thier shools and run up the US flag do so precisely to create a backlash against the very people they pretend to champion, all in hopes of creating even more resentment. Have we not learnee anything from Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle or Ellison's Invisible Man? Catholics wax romantic about Communitarian Hispanic Catholicism while young men with Our Lady of Guadalupe tatooed on one armn and Satan on the other kill each other and no one thinks to tell them that could go to Hell becuase the political correct view is that thier plight is the fault of the Anglo-Saxon majority.
written by Jack, June 14, 2011
The area mentioned as having as part of its culture a syncretic, suspect Catholicism is one that is also one that is very indigenous. In fact many of the people even speak an indigenous language. Would it then be appropriate to term this land's pre-Columbian practices(and "young men with Our Lady of Guadelupe and Satan on the other") as "Hispanic?" and consequences of a supposedly vulgar Hispanic(Spanish)conquest and civilization? This article just reeks of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant mentality.
written by Robert Royal, June 14, 2011
We call people from the region Hispanic, not Spanish, precisely because they are a mix of cultures beyond those of the Iberian explorers. As I said in the column, the curanderos show an admirable belief in the immediate presence of the spiritual world, but this is not all one can ask of any culture. I'm sorry to say that the above comment reeks of an all too common bias: we can criticize parts of American or European cultures, but to say that cultures in Latin America, Asia, or Africa are -- like our own -- imperfect means the critic must be a white devil. How is it an Anglo-Saxon Protestant mentality to say, as I do in conclusion, that a Hispanic influence may be one of the unanticipated sources of renewal for America?
written by Jack, June 16, 2011
I am absolutely for a critique of practices that aren't in sync with Catholic orthodoxy; however I don't think these practices should be blamed on the Spanish, nor do I think it proper that all manifestations of popular religiosity occuring in Latin American countries should necessarily be termed "Hispanic" though I know that is often the case when describing said things. I personally prefer "Hispanic" as a synonym for Spanish, as the term originally was such.
written by G.K. Thursday, June 25, 2011
I can't agree with Jack's comment that Mr. Royal's post "reeks of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant mentality" as much as it reveals a standard bias in many people of the United States, steeped as they are in the Black Legend. According to this slander, somehow Latin America was a "realm of oppression, slavery and witchcraft," while the U.S. was a Puritan "land of the Christian pure, home of the Pilgrim who made Progress." One often finds this bias these days in small evangelical groups who distinguish "Christians and Catholics," rather than "Protestants and Catholics" Mr. Royal simply writes from this bias, wittingly or unwittingly.

His article quotes Huntington with qualified approval and Chesterton with unqualified approval. He marshals some newsy bits to motivate the writing of the post, but evinces no deep familiarity with Latin American cultures and histories. Perhaps he has some of this, but it doesn't come through in the post. Anyone reading only the last couple year's NYT or WSJ could repeat these news snippets and never have read any deeper sources. Most tellingly he quotes no Latin American observers or thinkers on the subject, although there are many of these both in the Roman Catholic Church and in the broader society. Perhaps taking a look at the masterful theologian Fr. Virgilio Elizondo might be a good starting point to understand how Hispanics/Latinos have seen their journey as Americans and Roman Catholics. Instead we get Chesterton! No don't get me wrong, I really like Chesterton. But ignoring all of the Hispanic/Latino thinkers in U.S. history, inside and outside of the Church, and instead quoting a British thinker, no matter how orthodox, yields no insight into the situation of "Hispanic Catholics and the American Experiment".

I urge Mr. Royal to read some of Bernard Lonergan's work _insight_, specifically the sections on "bias". It is not as often read these days as in the 1990s, but it still has much to teach us on the theological quest to avoid biased and half-baked thought.
written by Robert Royal, June 25, 2011
Dear Mr. Thursday: you seem to be in more militant teaching, less in listening mode. Since you're quoting titles, let me mention my own book "1492 and All That," which works some of the material you mention with praise and blame for all sides. I was trying to get at something else here.

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