Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The best laid plans of bishops

For Cinco de Mayo yesterday, the New York Times examined the demographically changing Catholic Church in America:
The Roman Catholic Church has known for years that its future in the United States depends heavily on Hispanics. The church, which is the largest religious denomination in the country, is already about 40 percent Hispanic, and the demographic change is inexorable: Within the next few decades, Hispanics are expected to make up a majority of American Catholics.
The influx of Hispanics has been a stabilizing factor for the church. Were it not for immigration, Catholicism in the United States would be dwindling as non-immigrant Catholics drift away from the church. But the changing makeup of American Catholicism also poses challenges, starting with the problem that much of the physical and political infrastructure of the church is concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, while much of the immigration-fueled growth is in the Southwest and West.
Hispanic Catholics differ from other American Catholics in a number of striking, and significant, ways: Hispanic parents have been much less likely to send their children to Catholic schools, and their sons have been less likely to pursue the priesthood.
A researcher at Boston College, Hosffman Ospino, has undertaken a new effort to understand the behavior of Hispanic American Catholics, and the implications for the larger church. In a study released Monday, Mr. Ospino finds a relatively high level of participation in church sacraments, but a low level of participation in other aspects of parish life, and a concerning lack of personnel and financial resources in parishes with high numbers of Hispanics.
For decades, the US bishops have kept their heads buried in the sand over the catastrophic decline of the Catholic Church in America on their watch. Many of them are the descendants of the big waves of Irish, Italian, Polish, Slovak, and other Catholic immigrants so they're all high on Ellis Island nostalgia. Those previous ethnic groups of immigrants were undoubtedly a boon to American Catholicism so, the thinking goes, surely importing millions of Mexican Catholics will prop up the American Church's sagging numbers. For numerous reasons, it's not working out that way.

Americans generally overestimate how Catholic the Mexicans really are. We think that all Mexicans are either little abuelas muttering their rosary in the back pew, or mustachioed Cristeros ready to kick ass and take names for Christ the King. The truth is, the fastest growing religious groups in Mexico today are the Pentecostals and the cult of Santa Muerte. Despite importing Mexico's underclass, there has not been a corresponding increase in Sunday donations, in volunteer hours, or in vocations to the priesthood to go along with their numbers. Mexicans are notorious about their low participation rates in social or civic organizations outside their immediate families. They want the sacraments, and that's it. Nonetheless, the bishops still herald them as the salvation of the Catholic Church in the United States.

If it's true that the US Church will become majority Mexican in the next few decades (enough of this "Hispanic" nonsense. Unless you live in New York or Florida, 99% of the time they're Mexicans), then the bishops will have to let go of the massive infrastructure they've inherited because the money simply won't be there anymore. Despite the tens of millions of Mexican Catholics, vocations directors in the Western US still have to go overseas, hat in hand, to beg the Philippines or Africa or Latin-America for more seminarians. The priest shortage in the US is a 100% manufactured problem, but that's a whole 'nother story.

The sooner the bishops have to come to grips with their own failures, the better for everyone. What the Mexicans really need is a Hispanic version of "Dagger" John Hughes, the first Archbishop of New York. He molded the drunken brawling Irish underclass into the political and ecclesial machines they are known for today.

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