By JOHN WOODS
Catholic New York (CNY)
In two decades, when Latino Catholics make up 40 to 50 percent of all U.S. Catholics, they "will likely not only have a place at the table, but also be hosts at the table," said Peter Steinfels, the co-director of Fordham University's Center on Religion and Culture, at a forum the center sponsored.
The Dec. 9 evening forum, "Becoming Latino: Transforming U.S. Catholicism," examined the growing Latino Catholic population in the United States in terms of its demographics, spiritual and pastoral practices, social-economic challenges and potential for Church leadership.
The forum, held in Pope Auditorium on Fordham's Lincoln Center campus, included brief presentations by each of the panelists, followed by follow-up discussions among the panelists themselves and then responses to written questions submitted by the audience of some 200 people.
"Our future is totally bound up with our discussion this evening," said Father Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., in his comments at the outset of the forum.
Father Deck, executive director, Office for Cultural Diversity in the Church, U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops, was moderator of the forum whose panelists were: Luis Lugo, director, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Father Claudio Burgaleta, S.J., coordinator, Latino studies program, Fordham University's Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education; Maria Odom, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC) in Washington, D.C.; and Msgr. Arturo J. Banuelas, pastor of St. Pius X Church, El Paso, Texas.
Lugo's remarks drew heavily upon demographic data collected in Pew studies and surveys. He noted that without the influx of Latino Catholics in the United States in recent decades, the U.S. Church would be shrinking. As it is, the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Catholic has remained consistent at 23 or 24 percent for a number of decades.
"The United States is not becoming less Catholic because the Roman Catholic Church is becoming more Hispanic," he said.
According to Lugo, three major factors influence the internal composition of religious groups and their overall share of population: change of religious affiliation, immigration and fertility rates.
Though the number of U.S. Catholics leaving the Church far exceeds the numbers entering the Church as new members, those numbers don't tell the full story, Lugo said.
New immigrants who are Catholic outnumber those who are Protestant by a ratio of 2 to 1, Lugo said. Also, the fertility rates of Hispanics in the United States are far higher than those of other ethnic and racial groups, he added.
Consequently, the Latino population in the United States is expected to grow by 300 percent by 2050 while the U.S. population as a whole advances by 50 percent, Lugo said.
Father Burgaleta noted that Latino Catholics are traditional and orthodox in the practice of their faith, but also "heavily identify" with the Charismatic movement.
"These are characteristics that often don't go together in the popular imagination," he said.
He explained that Latino Catholics are not a monolithic group. While Mexicans represent the largest numbers of immigrants in much of the country, many of the Hispanic Catholics who have come to New York are originally from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Caribbean.
"They have a history and tradition that is very different from Mexicans," Father Burgaleta said. The differences among people from different countries who now live in the same parish can present significant pastoral challenges, he said.
The Latino community in the United States is also producing a body of Catholic and Protestant theology in the United States, Father Burgaleta said. He said his fellow panelists, Msgr. Banuelas and Father Deck, were both influential in the establishment of such theological work.
Ms. Odom said that there is "a need for the mainstream Catholic community to know and understand the immigrant Catholic community," including why they risked their lives and endure persecution to come to the United States.
"We must embrace our responsibility to welcome the stranger among us," she said.
Msgr. Banuelas said that Latinos are unlike the many ethnic groups who have come to the United States, only to lose "many of their cultural traditions and language."
"We have not lost touch with our roots," he said. "Catholics are experiencing a renaissance of cultural enrichment evident in the dominant use of Spanish in our homes."
He said Church leaders in particular must promote "pastoral practice that goes beyond" efforts at assimilation whose sole purpose is "to integrate Latinos into mainstream U.S.A."