August 21, 2011


Nation of Faith, Nation of Immigrants (Charles J. Chaput, August 16, 2011, Public Discourse)

America's laws and institutions come from a moral worldview shaped by Christian belief. They depend not on where her people came from, but on what they are willing to sacrifice to keep the experiment alive. Adapted from a keynote address delivered to the national gathering of CALL (Catholic Association of Latino Leaders).

Demography is destiny. The next America will be increasingly Latino. That's simply a fact, and it's also a blessing, because I believe Hispanic faith and culture are very great goods for our Church and for American life in general. Unfortunately, as facts go, it may also be an indictment, because social data show that Latinos leave the Catholic faith at the same rate as every other ethnic group. So the idea that more Latinos automatically mean a more "Catholic" America is just pious self-delusion.

The late Avery Cardinal Dulles was one of the great American theologians of my lifetime. He grew up in a Protestant family that was very prominent on the national scene, both socially and politically. His conversion to the Catholic faith was viewed by some at the time as rather shocking. But he knew exactly what he was doing, and why. He once wrote that, "The greatest danger facing the Church in our country today is that of an excessive and indiscreet accommodation." I think he wrote those words with a heavy dose of irony, because he deliberately chose to leave the morally exhausted WASP establishment at the same time so many American Catholics were desperately trying to force their way into it.

My point is this: For all of its greatness, America has a huge capacity to homogenize new immigrants; to bleach out their personality, their character and especially their beliefs. In the decades ahead, being a Catholic will need to be a conscious choice. The day when culture, ethnicity and habit could sustain a Catholic life is gone--and it's not coming back. Being truly "Catholic" in 2011--whether we trace our roots to Mexico or France or Ireland or Korea--means one thing: It means living a life of sacrificial witness. And the privilege of that witness will fall especially on leaders. [...]

Precisely because of America's homogenizing power, Latinos need to protect those qualities--like the importance of family, faith and community--that make up so much of the Hispanic experience. But the Catholic faith is not a subset of ethnicity. Faith, not ethnicity, is the fundamental category of life, which is why Archbishop Jose Gomez so often warns us against a purely "cultural Catholicism."

Dr. Reyes puts it this way: "Faith, and only faith, is what holds the People of God together. Even during the brutal fights between Irish and German Catholics over public schools, Americanization and similar issues in the late 19th century, they still saw their disputes as being an argument within the Catholic family. If we make ethnicity our defining issue, then a shared worldview is impossible. What we get instead is an illusion of unity built around some form of liberal multiculturalism. And that isn't a real worldview at all, but just a rhetorical strategy to justify either particular political goals or the cult of the imperial self."

Here's the final thought. Again, in the words of Dr. Reyes, "there's an irreconcilable difference between America's radical individualism and the Hispanic commitment to community. American Catholic life, as it stands today, has already been undermined by the cult of the self. We see it in every distorted appeal to personal conscience. We see it in the kind of 'cafeteria Catholicism' that throws out the inconvenient parts of Catholic belief but tries to keep the Catholic label. Any project of Hispanic integration with American life needs to expose this problem. Hispanics need to protect their own natural sense of community, but they also need to attack the spirit of self-absorption, practical atheism and consumer vanity that has turned so much of American Catholic witness into just another toothless, religious version of secular culture."

Posted by at August 21, 2011 5:43 AM

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