On September 10, Steve Bannon – the controversial and short-lived White House Chief Strategist – commented on “60 Minutes” that the motivation behind the push by American bishops on behalf of illegal immigrants is their desire to “fill the churches” since parishes are dying and money is needed. The comment is snide and also highly inaccurate for a number of reasons. A few days later, another commentator asserted that Catholic Charities offices were “pro-immigrant” because of the government money which flows into their coffers. I would like this editorial to put the whole question of the Church’s response (and responsibility) to immigrants into a proper context.
To be sure, one could get the impression that the U.S. bishops are of one mind on the immigration question, but I suspect that this is a mis-impression. Indeed, many bishops – individually – have a rather nuanced approach to the issue but are forced into a kind of lock-step policy by the bureaucracy of the episcopal conference. In point of fact, even Pope Francis vacillates greatly from calling for an almost “open borders” policy to a much more reasonable one of welcoming immigrants according to a nation’s capacity to “integrate” (the Pope’s word) them into the overall culture; the Pope’s guidance is less than helpful because, depending on his audience, he has changed his position many times.
But let’s return to Bannon’s remark, which displays incredible ignorance of the reality of American Catholic life.
Firstly, vast numbers of Hispanics arriving in our country are former Catholics, either by way of having been lured into various Fundamentalist sects in their country of origin or by having become “unchurched” for a variety of reasons. Further, as any priest involved in Hispanic ministry knows, if a parish had to rely on Hispanic contributions for survival, it wouldn’t survive for very long. It is not unusual that a congregation of 500 would yield less than $200 in the collection. This is so because the vast majority of these immigrants are poor and likewise because they were never trained to give to the church in their home countries.
As far as Catholic Charities offices go, I think it fair to say that they would not have any outreach work of this kind to do, were the immigrants not in need. In other words, the commentator got the equation backwards. It is not that these agencies seek government money and then hunt up clients; it is that the clients are already there, and funding is required. That said, I am not very sanguine about how “Catholic” some of these offices are as I have seen disturbing evidence that some of their workers actually refuse to direct clients to nearby Catholic churches for the sacraments, even when the immigrants request such information, doubtless for fear of losing government dollars.
This whole discussion, however, needs to be placed in a much broader context, namely, the situation of the Church in Latin America and the historical and present pastoral response to Catholic immigrant groups. In addition to data readily available to any inquirer, I also have a considerable amount of direct experience from having worked with evangelizing and apologetics groups in Mexico, Panama, Santo Domingo and Guatemala (the first country of Latin America to pass the 50% mark in Catholic defections to Fundamentalist sects; amazingly, that happened when Rios Mont was president and had become an Evangelical, while his own brother was a Catholic bishop!).
I don’t intend to be mean or unduly critical when I say that the overall evangelization of Latin America was never great. Yes, the majority of people were “sacramentalized” but hardly or very poorly catechized. The continent never produced a sufficient number of native vocations, which is why one of St. John XXIII’s first requests as Pope was for the United States (and other “First World” nations) to send priests, religious and laity as missionaries to South America. Nor can anyone defend the “winking” at syncretism which has co-existed with Catholicism there for centuries. Add to the confusion the tremendous damage done to an already weak body of believers by the onslaught of liberation theology, which really expedited the exodus of Catholics to sects. A case in point, when Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Mass attendance hit an all-time low of 20%. Barring some extraordinary pastoral outreach (about which more in a minute), we can’t expect such immigrants to be “filling the churches” in the United States.
Honesty compels us to admit that the Church in America has always been a Church of immigrants. The greatest influx, of course, occurred in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Most of those folks were poor, uneducated and, from a Catholic perspective, no “prize packages.” The Italians and Irish actually developed a reputation for being prone to crime. The Church’s response to the deck she had been handed was not hand-wringing or passive acceptance of a bad situation. Bishops and priests zeroed in on the children of the immigrants and, through the still-incipient Catholic school system, created a generation of observant Catholics who were simultaneously integrated into mainstream society – with the bonus that not a few of their parents followed their children’s lead into a more vibrant practice of the Faith.
When we consider the present condition of Hispanic Catholicism in our nation, we must conclude that one of the greatest failures of the American hierarchy has been the pastoral care of Hispanics. For the first time in American Catholic history, newly arrived immigrants have not had the Catholic education of their children taken seriously. The results have been disastrous: Nearly half of Hispanic Catholics have left the Church for other religious communities, while vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life from the Hispanic population are embarrassingly low. In the 1980s, Archbishop Pio Laghi, then papal nuncio to the United States (previously nuncio in Argentina and eventually prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome) castigated our bishops for their pastoral negligence in this regard. As he stated in the New York Times in May 1989, “The annual loss of Spanish-speaking Catholics to non-Catholic sects is significantly—I would say disturbingly—high.”
Six years ago, this regrettable lacuna in pastoral outreach was highlighted in a study produced by Notre Dame University. In 2009, the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame set a goal of adding one million Hispanic children to the rolls of Catholic schools by 2020. As a result, the portion of the Catholic school population that is Hispanic rose from 12.8 percent to 15 percent. We might rejoice in that gain if not for the fact that Hispanic youth comprise approximately 50 percent of all Catholic youth. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has been known to remark, with sadness, that there are more black Baptist children in our Catholic schools than there are Hispanic Catholic children.
Some bishops and priests think that offering a Mass in Spanish on Sunday with some Mariachi music or guidelines for a quinceñera constitutes “Hispanic ministry.” They are deluded. Last semester I served as a supervisor for a student-teacher in a public school populated by 600 Hispanic children, while the Catholic school two blocks away was three-quarters empty. As I was leaving the school one day, a fourth-grade boy shouted out, “Oh, look, there’s a priest.” Two of his buddies asked, “What’s a priest?”
One day some years up the line, sociologists of religion will accuse the past two generations of clergy of massive pastoral malpractice. Indeed, the only Hispanic immigrant group to maintain its Catholic identity in any substantive way has been the Cubans. And why? Because the Archdiocese of Miami made an historical commitment to the Catholic education of the Cuban refugees. The same can be said of Filipino Catholics in the U.S.
While some bishops talk a lot about their concern for our Hispanic brothers and sisters, that talk tends to ring hollow because it is not followed up by effective and serious pastoral care. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman opined that the Church was often very eager to make converts but, once in, the Church didn’t know what to do with them or perhaps didn’t even care.
So, Mr. Bannon, you got the story all wrong. I wish the Hispanic immigrants were “filling the churches,” but they are not.
No Catholic – particularly no American Catholic – can afford to be “anti-immigrant.” However, we must press for much-needed immigration reform at the civil level; within the family of the Church, we must have an attitude of fraternal welcome, all the while pressing for ecclesiastical policies and programs that ensure whole-hearted practice of the Faith by parents and children alike and a healthy integration into the best elements of American civic and social life. Yours Truly is the proud grandson of four immigrants – a priest with two doctorates, thanks to what the Church did for my grandparents when they arrived a century ago.
Proper attitude and proper action are the keys to “filling the churches” with Catholic immigrants and their children.