May 24, 2007
The Impact of Latino Immigration on Catholicism in the United States
— Andrea Althoff
The sizeable influx to the United States of Latin American immigrants — mainly from Mexico — raises questions about how immigration is changing the face of the Catholic Church, where Latinos already make up one third of that communion. A recent survey from the Pew Hispanic Center ("Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion") reveals data meriting analysis here.
One striking discovery is that more than half (54 percent) of interviewed Latino Catholics identified themselves as "charismatic." This figure is remarkable not only for its size, but also because it undercuts expectations. The large majority of Catholics in Mexico, as well as second-, third-, and fourth-generation Mexican-American Catholics, profess a Mexican Catholicism — one that is primarily traditional and sacramental, with a rather passive relationship of the faithful with regard to the hierarchy, and a strong emphasis on devotion to the saints (particularly the Virgin Guadalupe).
But the high number of self-identified charismatics among immigrants strongly suggests that Latin Americans entering the US are not only changing the face of traditional Catholicism, but that the immigration process itself may be stimulating the shift to charismatic religion. First, Mexican immigrants make up an ever larger portion of the Catholic Church; their sheer numbers impact its demography. Second, while the charismatic movement has made inroads into Catholicism in Mexico, its numbers there are not as significant as in other Latin American countries, such as Brazil. It seems, therefore, that the shift to charismatic religion, particularly among Mexican immigrants, takes place in relation to the immigration process itself. Finally, according to the Pew report, foreign-born Latino Catholics who come to the US are much more likely (58 percent) to be charismatic than Latinos who were born here (43 percent), again suggesting a link between immigration and the charismatic turn.
What characterizes this Latino charismatic Catholicism, and what accounts for its growing prominence? Like charismatic Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic) more generally, Latino charismatic Catholicism is distinguished by religious practices including prophesying, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, divine healings, exorcism, frequent Bible reading, high church attendance, and evangelizing activities. With regard to these practices (though to a lesser extent with baptism in the Holy Spirit), Latino charismatic Catholicism fits the wider profile of charismatic Christianity.
For the Catholic Church in the US, one pressing question regarding the consequences of this burgeoning mode of religious expression is, Do charismatic practices jeopardize the power of traditional religious authorities, in particular priests? The "renewalist" movement (which includes charismatics and Pentecostalists) seeks to invigorate the role of the laity through the direct power of the Holy Spirit and claims of divine revelations from God. This empowerment may account for why immigrants who feel otherwise marginalized and disempowered turn to charismatic religion. But this same sense of empowerment can result in the displacement of institutionalized religious authorities.
The empowered laity, with its leaders emerging from the Catholic grassroots, not only potentially endangers the role of priests and the traditional sacraments. With their distinctive worship style, which emphasizes spontaneity, enthusiasm, and exuberance (including clapping and raising of hands, shouting, jumping, and the expression of emotions in general), charismatics embrace a form of worship that strongly differs from — and could threaten to destabilize — the traditional formality and solemnity of the Mass.
My research in Chicago indicates, unsurprisingly, that conflicts between laity and the Church hierarchy are especially poignant in parishes staffed with priests who are opposed to the renewalist movement. Coming from Catholic faith traditions such as liberation theology or Catholic Social Action, some of these priests fear that charismatic spirituality obscures a clear assessment of current social justice issues, such as immigration and the economic marginalization of Latinos — thus proving counterproductive to Latinos' own best interests.
But while Latino charismatics within US Catholicism are a powerful presence, the report of the Pew Hispanic Center, combined with my own research findings, contains a clear and reassuring message for the hierarchy: Latino Catholic charismatics are not at all a rebellious flock on the verge of converting to Protestant Pentecostalism (an argument often voiced in the debate on growing Protestantism in Latin America). To the contrary, 73 percent of Catholic charismatics say they would never leave the Catholic Church. In addition, they are nearly twice as likely as other Latino Catholics to serve their parishes as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, choir members, parish council members, or leaders of small groups or ministries.
In sum, the Pew study reveals no indications that Catholic charismatic Latinos undermine the traditional role of US Catholicism as an institution or a traditional orthodox Catholicism. How these charismatic believers might react if compelled by the Church hierarchy to renounce their distinctive religious practices is yet another story.
Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion, ed. Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2007).
Badillo, David A., Latinos and the New Immigrant Church (2005).
Chesnut, Andrew, Competitive Spirits: Latin America's New Religious Economy (2003).
The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, ed. Burgess, Stanley and Eduard M. Van der Mass (2002).
Andrea Althoff is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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