Latinos reshaping the religious demography of the USA

By Ecumenical News International
11 Jan 2010

Catholics in the United States are asking a question that touches on demographics and culture: what will the church look like in the coming years when at least 40 per cent, and perhaps even a majority, of US Catholics are Latino? - writes Chris Herlinger.

At the very least, "they will not only have a place at the table, they will be the hosts of the table," said Peter Steinfels, a New York Times religion columnist and the co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, at a recent forum that examined the impact of Latin Americans on the church and the US religious landscape.

Steinfels spoke at an event at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, at the end of 2009, noting that previous questions of Latino involvement centred on the issue of the wider church welcoming new arrivals into the United States.

Forum speakers said the sheer scale of demographics calls for new ways of thinking – a fact acknowledged by Rev Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church.

Deck noted that the late Cardinal Avery Dulles said the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants was an opportunity for the Catholic Church, "to influence the broader American culture".

The changes occurring now within US Catholicism will eventually be reflected in the wider US culture, a process Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington DC, called "the browning of America".

While the United States remains predominately white and Protestant, shifting demographics will change that dynamic, said Lugo. He added that by 2050, Latinos will constitute at least a quarter, and perhaps close to a third, of the US population. (Currently Latinos comprise about 15 percent of the population)

Lugo noted that one-quarter of newborns in the United States are Latino and more than half of newborns to Catholic families are Latino.

A majority of Latinos in the United States have family roots in Mexico but the profile of Latino Catholics in the country is diverse, with backgrounds in the Caribbean, Central America and South America, as well. "Cubans are very different than Mexican Americans," observed Monsignor Arturo J. Bañuelas, pastor of St. Pius X Church in El Paso, Texas.

The issue of diversity emerges in several ways, including in the style of worship. The Rev. Claudio Burgaleta, who coordinates the Latino studies programme at Fordham's Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, noted that a majority of US, Latino Catholics identify themselves as "charismatic".

While Catholic, they embrace a Pentecostal-like worship, believe in miracles, are biblically conservative and believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, watches over them.

Participants in the Fordham forum recognised that with its history of welcoming waves of past immigrant groups such as Italians, Irish and Poles, the US Catholic Church has experience in dealing with the dynamics of immigration.

But Bañuelas, among others, rejects the idea of an "assimilationist" model in which immigrants shed their cultural identity for an American "norm". Bañuelas argued that Latinos want to reaffirm their values and culture.

Part of that stems from recognising, Bañuelas said, that most US Latinos "live in the shadows of power, including the Church".

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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