Hispanic Catholics and the American Experiment

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.