December 16, 2002
Catholicism and American Hispanics: In, Out, or Spiritual?
-- Martin E. Marty
Sighting evidences of religion in American public life is easy, there are so many. Choosing which to highlight is more difficult. Friday last, the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and an executive order giving a jump-start to federal funding of "faith-based initiatives" vied with two or three other front-page items for notice.
Looking only at headliners instead of quieter stories about trends can lead observers to miss much. What caught my eye on the front page of the New York Times that day (December 13) was a colored photo of Mexican-American Catholics celebrating the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They were shown waving hands and banners in front of the entrance doors to St. Patrick's Cathedral. Will they regularly go inside that or other Catholic sanctuaries? The jury may be out, but the verdict looms.
On the same day, the Gannett News Service papers were publishing a Janet Kornblum story: "Catholic Church Is Losing Hispanics." The long-range consequences of that may outdo in importance the aftereffects of the clerical abuse scandal -- and how we long for a day "after" that! -- or the debates over faith-based initiatives. The future of American Catholicism, American church-going patterns, and American religion (and thus much of American life) depends in no small measure on the choices this fast-growing population makes. The U.S. Hispanic adult numbers came close to doubling in the decade past -- 23 million where there had been 14.6.
Scholar Anthony Stevens Arroyo of Brooklyn College brings perspective to the startling feature: while 66 percent identified themselves as Catholic in 1990, only 57 percent do now. The percentage of those who said they had no religion more than doubled, from 6 to 13. Now for the almost-least surprising figure: 53 percent of those who say they have no religion also say that they believe in God; strong disbelief attracts only 4 percent. Then comes the least surprising word: virtually all those beyond the 4 percent prove that they are typical Americans, Hispanic or otherwise, by insisting "I'm still spiritual." The concept of "spirituality" is getting so broad that demographers, ethnographers, and religion scholars may soon have to toss it out as a meaningless identifier, or simply equate it with "the human condition." Non-belief and atheism are at least clarifying terms.
The Gannett story did not mention that some leakage from inherited and instinctive Catholicism is not being drawn into the clarified ranks of non-belief or the vapors of spirituality. Aggressive Pentecostals, other evangelicals, and Southern Baptists are providing church homes for many who have drifted and are ripe for participating in lively communities. They, and quickened Catholic parishes, have to work against the trend of the culture, but many of them do succeed.