The Coming Latino Catholic Majority

Hispanics account for more than 70 percent of the growth in the US Catholic population since 1960.

The Coming Latino Catholic Majority

In 1558, after five years of Catholic tyranny, the good Virgin Queen succeeded Bloody Mary, who had burned countless Christians at the stake. During Elizabeth’s reign, the heroic Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe and defeated the Spanish Armada. After Captain John Smith established Jamestown, brave Separatists set sail for Holland to worship according to their consciences; in 1620, these men, now the Pilgrims, set sail on the Mayflower and penned the Mayflower Compact, the foundation of American representative government. They celebrated the first Thanksgiving Day, and soon Massachusetts Puritans built a shining city on a hill. 

Moved by the spirit of liberty, the colonists declared their independence from King George. After winning their independence, Americans fulfilled their manifest destiny, spreading Christianity and civilization from Atlantic to Pacific. The Protestant work ethic made the United States as prosperous as it was free, while the Catholic nations to the south, marred by sloth, despotism, and corruption, were doomed to backwardness.

This version of history, influenced by the Black Legend and nativism alike and imbibed in some form by many an American, has deep roots in US history. “Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy, and will not wait for a more extensive, disastrous, and overwhelming political interference, ere they assume the attitude of watchfulness and defense,” the inventor Samuel F. B. Morse wrote in his influential 1835 book Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States.

“The Romish priests have succeeded in extinguishing reason, judgment, and common sense among the Mexicans,” Charles Sparry said in his 1847 work, The Mysteries of Romanism. Describing a Mexican Marian procession, Sparry wrote that “this idol is paraded to its niche, by bishops, and by many plump, well-fed priests.… In all popish lands, the priest is everything: he is the breath in the nostrils of all devoted superstitious pagans and Romanists.”

“I felt desirous of ascertaining the state of popery in that exclusively popish country,” William Hogan wrote of Mexico in his 1854 book Popery: As It Was and As It Is. “Under [popery’s] icy influence there can arise no generous, no daring spirit of adventure in the cause of God; subjection and fear soon become the predominant passions of humanity.”

“The Texans had not a thousand men when they declared their independence of Mexico,” Hogan continued. “But that army was an army of priest-ridden slaves, and the gallant little band of Protestant Texans…banished from among them the treacherous Spanish priests, who were in Texas; they fought for their freedom and they won it.”

“The Latin race holds to popery, and the world is rapidly outliving that form of religion,” Joseph Hendrickson McCarty added in his 1888 work Two Thousand Miles through the Heart of Mexico. “The Teutonic race holds to Protestantism, and Protestantism means progress along all lines. Germany, Sweden, the United States, Norway, England are Teutonic. The Teutonic races believe in free thought in politics, science, religion, all things—the Latin race believes in the pope.”

Strains of this view endure to this day: prominent scholars fret over Hispanic fertility, even if they no longer use words like “popery” and “Teutonic” or conjure up images of “plump, well-fed priests.” Even shorn of anti-Catholicism, a reading of history that focuses primarily on the English roots of American culture is deficient, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said during a July 28 lecture at the Napa Institute.

“The story of the founding fathers and the truths they held to be self-evident is not the whole story about America,” he stated. “The rest of the story starts more than a century before the Pilgrims. It starts in the 1520s in Florida and in the 1540s here in California. It is the story not of colonial settlement and political and economic opportunity. It’s the story of exploration and evangelization. This story is not Anglo-Protestant but Hispanic-Catholic. It is centered, not in New England but in Nueva España—New Spain—at opposite corners of the continent.”

Speaking on October 11 at Loyola Marymount University, Archbishop Gomez added:

Before I came to Los Angeles, I was the archbishop of San Antonio, as many of you know. My cathedral see was San Fernando Cathedral, which was established in 1731. If you know your dates, you’ll know that George Washington was not even born and already Catholics were worshipping there. We also know that priests traveling with Ponce de León near southeast Florida in 1521 offered the first Mass celebrated in the present boundaries of the United States. That’s almost exactly a century before William Bradford and the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock.…

That means that as Americans, we are children both of the Protestant Reformation that prevailed in places like England and also of the Catholic renewal, or the Counter-Reformation, centered in Spain and Rome. It is true historically that the Protestant spirit came to inform America’s political, economic, and cultural institutions, while Catholics for many years faced discrimination in different forms. But today the broad Christian consensus that once underwrote the institutions and assumptions of American life has collapsed. And in the face of widespread religious indifferentism and elite disdain for religion, I believe it is more necessary than ever that we recover the spiritual legacy of our country’s Catholic “founders.”

“America needs our Hispanic Catholic witness for the renewal of her national soul,” Archbishop Gomez continued. “To the beautiful Puritan idea of America as the ‘city upon a hill,’ we need to propose in our evangelization a beautiful Hispanic-Catholic vision of America as El Camino Real, the King’s Highway.”

In 1940, when only 1.9 million out of America’s 132.2 million people were Hispanic, a discussion of a Latino majority of United States Catholics would have appeared fanciful—as fanciful as an 1840 prediction that the majority of Catholics in the United States would soon be Irish. Ten months before Pearl Harbor, the appointment of Bishop Robert Lucey as archbishop of San Antonio placed Hispanics on the radar screen of bishops across the country.

As was common for many prelates of his era, Archbishop Lucey backed the New Deal, built 40 parishes, invited 30 religious institutes into his archdiocese, and supported the Vietnam War, delivering the invocation at President Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration. Archbishop Lucey was appalled by the poverty and discrimination experienced by local Hispanics, who could not serve on juries in some parts of the state before the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Hernandez v. Texas. The prelate was the driving force behind the formation of the US Bishops’ Committee for the Spanish-Speaking in 1945; he actively promoted catechesis, sought improved health care for Mexican-Americans, and called for higher wages for migrant workers.

In 1970, Archbishop Lucey was one of the co-consecrators of Bishop Patrick Flores, the first Hispanic bishop in the United States. Since then, nearly 50 Hispanic priests have been ordained bishops. Today, some 40 percent of Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, accounting for more than 70 percent of the growth in US Catholic population since 1960. Hispanics form the majority of Catholics under 35, and the majority of Catholics in the United States will be Hispanic in the decades ahead, though recent estimates of when exactly this will occur vary from 2025 to 2035.

Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, director for Hispanic/Latino Affairs at the US bishops’ conference, told CWR that “the Catholic Church in the United States will benefit from a young, vibrant population that has a profound faith in God…a strong sense of family and community, an authentic Marian devotion and rich Catholic popular practices, [and] a need to feel God’s presence in daily life and in ministry through vibrant apostolic movements.”

Hispanic Catholics today

The number of Hispanics in the United States grew from 1.9 million in 1940, to 14.6 million in 1990, to 50.5 million in 2010, according to US Census Bureau data. Of these, 31.8 million are Mexican-American, 4.6 million are Puerto Rican, 1.8 million are Cuban-American, and 1.6 million are Salvadoran-American. Hispanics today do not uniformly assent to “popery”: 68 percent of US Hispanics are Catholic, according to a 2007 report by the Pew Research Center, while 15 percent are Evangelical Protestants and 8 percent profess no religion.

“The number of Hispanics self-identifying as Catholics has declined from nearly 100 percent in just two decades, while the number who describe themselves as Protestant has nearly doubled and the number saying they have ‘no religion’ has also doubled,” Archbishop Gomez noted in a 2009 talk.

Of the 68 percent of Hispanics who are Catholic, 68 percent are foreign-born, and 55 percent speak Spanish as their primary language. The longer Hispanics live in the United States, the more likely they are to leave the Catholic faith; the Pew report found that 74 percent of foreign-born US Hispanics are Catholic, while only 58 percent of US-born Hispanics are. Hispanics whose primary language is English are twice as likely to convert as Hispanics whose primary language is Spanish.

“What good will it do our people to be a majority of Americans if we forfeit our Catholic faith in the process, if we lose our soul?” Archbishop Gomez asked in 2009. “Jesus Christ did not come to suffer and die so that he could make ‘cultural Catholics.’”

The Pew report found both a deep sense of piety and relatively low sacramental practice among Hispanic Catholics. While the Sunday Mass attendance rate is 6 percent lower than that of the non-Hispanic white population, 86 percent of Hispanic Catholics—and 39 percent of Hispanics who do not identify with any religion—have a crucifix or other religious object in their home. Seventy-nine percent of Hispanic Catholics seek the intercession of the Virgin Mary or of the saints during times of trial, and 64 percent pray daily.

Remarkably, 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics identify themselves as charismatics, and 51 percent believe that the Second Coming will take place during their lifetimes. Charismatic Hispanic Catholics are more likely than non-charismatic Hispanic Catholics to believe in transubstantiation, go to confession, pray the Rosary, and serve in a parish ministry.

“In the 1970s and 80s what had a huge impact on the Latino was the Protestant Pentecostal movement,” recalls Msgr. Herberto Diaz, a priest of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas who serves as president of the National Association of Hispanic Priests, which Archbishop Gomez led in the 1990s. Msgr. Diaz told CWR that “many Latinos began to leave the Catholic Church in droves due to the [Pentecostal] movement because it offered a more expressive form of worship.… In the Diocese of Brownsville we responded with the [Catholic] charismatic movement and the Cursillo retreats that brought many of our Catholics home.”

According to the Pew Center, when Hispanic Catholics convert to Evangelical Protestantism, they do so in 90 percent of cases because they desire “a more personal experience of God”; 36 percent said they viewed the Mass as unexciting. Seventy-six percent heard about their new church through a relative or friend, while 2 percent converted because of a radio or television ministry. Ten percent left the Church because of Catholic teaching on women’s ordination or divorce and remarriage.

Hispanics who have left the Church or who are not practicing their faith should not be ignored, Msgr. Diaz believes. “It is not hard at all to bring the Latino back to the Church,” he says. “All we have to do is go door to door, talk to the parents who [often] are eager to have their kids in CCD—but we need to go with an open heart and mind and a reverence for the rich culture they bring with them.”

Turning to Hispanic Catholics’ views of the Church, the Pew Center reported that 71 percent find the typical Mass “lively and exciting,” and 79 percent believe that the Church in the US values men and women equally. By small margins, Hispanic Catholics oppose the ordination of women and of married men to the priesthood.

Hispanic Catholics are 12 percent more likely than white, non-Hispanic Catholics to be pro-life, but 4 percent less likely to oppose same-sex marriage. As they assimilate into American society, Hispanic Catholics become markedly less pro-life; while 65 percent of first-generation Hispanic Catholics say that abortion should be illegal, only 43 percent in the second generation do so.

Although there are a proportionally low number of Hispanic priests in the United States, a remarkable 80 percent of Hispanic Catholics attend a parish with a Hispanic priest—though 74 percent say it does not matter to them whether or not the priest is Hispanic. Eighty-seven percent attend Spanish-language Masses; even in areas of the country that are less than 15 percent Latino, 77 percent of Hispanic Catholics report attending a regular Spanish-language Mass. A majority (56 percent) of Hispanics prefer a Spanish-language Mass, while 36 percent say that the language of the Mass does not matter. While 74 percent attend Mass with a mostly Hispanic congregation, only 23 percent say that they prefer a mostly Hispanic congregation, with the vast majority saying that the composition of the congregation does not matter.

Attendance at Spanish-language Masses is not limited to those who cannot speak English. “Seventy percent of Latinos who always hear Mass in Spanish are Spanish-dominant,” the Pew Center found. “That leaves three in ten Latinos in these congregations who are either bilingual or English dominant.”

While 65 percent of Hispanic Catholics see societal discrimination as a “major problem,” they have found a home in the Church; 85 percent believe the Church in the US is “very welcoming” or “somewhat welcoming” to immigrants.

Cultural barriers

Nonetheless, typical US parish policies may present barriers to the sacraments for many Hispanic Catholics, particularly agricultural migrant workers. Father Mike McAndrew, director of Campesino/Multicultural Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, recounted in a 2010 article:

It was the second-to-last day of a confirmation program when Juanita came to ask, “Padre, what do I need to do to receive the Body and Blood of Christ?” It was not the normal way a person may ask for First Communion. I told her that our program was for people like her, but it was the second-to-last day of class and we could not take on new people. She began to cry. I asked her to sit down and tell me her story.

She explained that her family had only arrived the night before and she found out about our program from her cousins who were in the class. She told of having lived in 10 different towns in the past eight years, having three times entered First Eucharist classes but never completing the programs. Each time she had to begin again.

I began to ask her questions of faith, it became clear that she was well informed on Catholicism. I asked, “How is it that you know so much about the Church?” She said, “Father, we go to Mass on Sundays. We are Catholic. We are just migrants.” There was no doubt that she would continue to grow in her practice of the Catholic faith. I welcomed her to the class. Four days later she received her confirmation and first Eucharist.

Msgr. Diaz and the US bishops’ conference’s Alejandro Aguilera-Titus agree that a policy-centered parish culture can be a cultural barrier to the participation of Hispanics in the life of the Church.

“The strict rules and regulations and deadlines we have for sacraments in the US can be a stumbling block,” said Msgr. Diaz. “Many Latinos, especially those who immigrate to this country, have a very different concept of rules and regulations. Since they are more relational and less pragmatic than we are in the US, they sometimes tend to get discouraged and end up not able to give sacraments to their children. We need to understand their culture and need of a relationship with a pastor or staff [member] who is accommodating and understanding of their situation.”

“The most significant barrier to the reception of the sacraments…is a policy of assimilation that keeps parishes from reaching out, welcoming, and making room for Hispanics/Latinos through ministries conduced in [their] linguistic and cultural context,” adds Aguilera-Titus. “In parishes that do offer culturally specific ministries…a barrier is the rigid approach and the one-size-fits-all mentality that excludes migrants from participating in formation programs and the reception of the sacraments. This mentality can be changed by a flexible approach to ministry that casts a bigger net, creating different programs for people in different situations in order to maximize the number of people benefiting from active participation in the life and mission of the parish.”

Because Latinos tend to focus more on relationships than on policies, says Msgr. Diaz, they are more likely to look upon parish priests as father figures—an attitude that could alter the dynamics of parish life in the decades ahead.

“One priest friend of mine from the Midwest shared with me that once he started having [a Spanish-language] Mass on Sunday…there began to be cars outside the rectory of Latinos needing him to be their doctor, counselor, judge, notary, etc.,” he recounted. “Latinos are very relational, and I believe that is a beautiful aspect of our culture, for them we priests are part of the family all the way to the heart. I dare say once my brother priests begin to realize this and allow themselves to be loved by them, it will change their whole life and ministry.”

Both Msgr. Diaz and Aguilera-Titus encouraged parishes to offer classes and ministries that engage Latinos.

“The establishment of Hispanic ministry in more than 4,500 parishes [has proven] by far the most successful way” to engage Latinos, says Aguilera-Titus. “This makes it possible for them to access a sacramental life and to develop ministers and ministries. Apostolic movements, particularly the Charismatic Renewal, popular religious practices, faith formation programs in Spanish for all ages, and social ministries are some of the most successful programs.”

“Latinos are hungry for direction in their faith,” adds Msgr. Diaz. “Bible classes and evangelization workshops are very important to meet their needs.… Another big devotion is the Marian movement—Mary is for us our mother, in a relational aspect.”

Both men encourage parishes to open wide their doors to the Latinos in their midst. Msgr. Diaz told CWR:

As to some common US parish practices that could be changed to accommodate the Latino, the first is to have a Mass in Spanish and to not be caught up in the attitude that “if you are in America, learn English.” People need to feel welcome, and we as Christians need to uphold the biblical message of welcoming the stranger, especially now in this scary atmosphere for the Latino of the anti-immigrant debate. The saddest thing I have heard from many Latinos working across the country, especially in the rural areas of the Midwest, is that they are just not going to Church at all. Many don’t feel welcome, [thinking] “Why should we go so that people give us a bad look?”

“Once a parish makes the decision to welcome Hispanics, not only as individuals but as a community through the creation of Hispanic ministry, the process of ecclesial integration is engaged,” adds Aguilera-Titus. “This process moves [them] from newcomers to stewards of the parish community. This process takes time, as a renewed sense of Catholic identity, belonging and ownership takes hold of the communities sharing the parish. In this process, communities move gradually from an ‘us/they’ language to a ‘we’ language.”

“If just a little effort were made to have just something in Spanish in a Sunday Mass, it would be a big hit,” says Msgr. Diaz. The increasing Hispanic presence “will change the Catholic Church in the US, but it will be for the better. The Latino Catholic will not take away anything from the Catholic Church in the US, but only add a richer flavor to it.”

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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.

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