February 8, 2005


Bible-Belt Catholics: With spirited preaching and conservative teaching, the South is giving the faith a new flavor (TIM PADGETT, 2/07/05, TIME)

Yankee transplants like the Liuzzos aren't the only ones helping fill the pews in the Charlotte diocese. Mexican immigrants are the fastest-growing group, and Hispanics as a whole make up half the diocese's 300,000 Catholics. Thousands of Vietnamese and Filipino Catholics are settling in too. "I've wondered often how bishops in the Northeast handled the waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries," says Bishop Peter Jugis, 47, who took over the diocese in 2003. "It's exciting." It also transcends demographics: the newcomers are practicing a more conservative Catholicism than their brethren in many other parts of the country.

That more orthodox approach is proving as popular as a revival meeting. Priests and lay people in traditional Catholic strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest are distressed by a plunge in regular Mass attendance to just 30% of the registered congregation in many parishes, by a chronic shortage of priests and by the financial burden of paying off settlements for sexual-abuse cases. But Catholics in places like Charlotte say the church is being born again in the cradle of born-again Christianity--the South. The Catholic population in Charlotte is growing almost 10% a year, and the ratio of newly ordained priests to parishioners there is 1 to 7,000, more than seven times as high as Chicago's. Bishop Jugis last year blessed five new churches in the diocese.

Charlotte's conversion is hardly unique. The number of Catholics in Houston and Atlanta has tripled in the past decade; the nation's first new Catholic university in 40 years, Ave Maria, is under construction in Naples, Fla. Pizza billionaire and Michigan native Tom Monaghan, a conservative Catholic, is bankrolling the $200 million campus, along with a scholarship program for the children of Florida migrant laborers, and many regard the project as a potent symbol of Southern Catholicism's growing theological and political clout. All told, Catholics still make up only about 12% of the South's population, vs. 22% of the total U.S. population, according to the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, Tenn. But Southern Catholics saw growth of almost 30% in the 1990s, compared with less than 10% for Baptists, who make up the area's largest denomination.

The success of the church in the South could be influential beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. Southern Catholicism "is changing the nature of the church in America," says Patrick McHenry, 29, a Republican who last month became Charlotte's first Catholic Congressman. "We adhere to a truer and purer view of Catholicism." Roman Catholics, still the largest religious denomination in the U.S., at 65 million strong, will debate what "truer and purer" means. But one thing seems certain: Southern Catholics, influenced in no small degree by their morally hard-line Protestant neighbors, as well as the strong piety of Latin America, are decidedly more orthodox in their faith. Their explosive growth could eventually reverse national polls in which a majority of Catholics say they can disagree with church teachings, even on abortion, and remain good Catholics. Indeed, many Sunbelt Catholics say their mission is to rescue the church from what they consider to be the murky faith of liberal Catholic figures like former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. During last year's election campaign, Jugis and at least two other Southern bishops publicly argued that Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights should be denied Holy Communion, a move endorsed by many Southern Catholics as the tone they believe the church should set.

Patrick McHenry? If he were a fictional character the name would seem too allegorical.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 8, 2005 11:44 AM

And the Chinese and Africans are also conservative.

Posted by: Sandy P at February 8, 2005 12:58 PM

I'd not spent much time in the South and my southern friends up at college in the lat 1980s were surprisingly ignorant of Catholicism and asked me all sorts of strange questions about my faith and family.

So, this summer, when the wife and I spend a week in the Charleston, SC area. We were fascinated to see 3 new-looking and apparently thriving Catholic churches just on our drive from the highway to the beach. The ratio to other denominations was similar to that in northern VA where we live. Something's going on down there for sure.

Posted by: JAB at February 8, 2005 8:57 PM

It didn't just start.

I grew up in the world's only Roman Catholic subdivision, Madonna Acres, when Catholics were less than 1% of Southerners.

In fact, as a percentage, growth in Catholicism today in the South is less than it was in the later '40s, early '50s.

Sooner or later, they'll become so common that the Baptists will probably have to stop teaching that they're digging a tunnel from Washington to the Vatican so the Pope can come over to rule the United States.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 11, 2005 3:54 PM