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  • Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church by Timothy Matovina
  • Ramón Luzárraga
Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church. By Timothy Matovina. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012. vii + 312 pages. $29.95

As the Catholic Church in the United States rapidly becomes a majority-minority body, Timothy Matovina surveys in Latino Catholicism how Latinos are leading this change on the popular, pastoral, and academic levels. Matovina argues for recognizing Latinos’ place in a remapping of U.S. Catholic history. He proposes a reorientation from a history that often begins with a persecuted English minority in Maryland, and as waves of European immigrants arrived, Catholics become the nation’s largest religious body, and eventually assimilate and are accepted. Receiving little attention in this narrative are Hispanic Catholics who become a part of the United States’ expansion into territories purchased or conquered from France, Spain, and Mexico. The oft-repeated chestnut “These people never moved across a border, the border moved across them” rings true. The U.S. Latino Catholic experience upends the received paradigm of how U.S. Catholics relate to American society, beginning as a minority church and either comes of age and assimilates or attains a zenith as a successful subculture within American society but lost that subculture after Vatican II. Unlike other U.S. Catholics, Latinos have not entirely assimilated by leaving behind their language and culture, yet they have not rejected assimilation. This orientation discredits the stereotypes that burden U.S. Latinos. Seventy percent of Latinos are not immigrants. The majority is fully bilingual. They are not foreign to the U.S. Matovina, agreeing with Virgilio Elizondo, argues that U.S. Latinos are mestizos, a dynamic mix of European, indigenous, African, and sometimes Asian root cultures. Consequently, Latinos have the capacity to serve as bridge builders among different peoples in the Church in the U.S. And, Latino theologians have identified such a role in their theological anthropology. Consequently, Matovina’s reorientation proposes a “hemispheric approach” to U.S. Catholic history. Doing so features the full inclusion of the plurality of peoples making up the U.S. Catholic population. Starting with the Latino contribution, this approach would encompass Native Americans, Francophone Catholics, and African-Americans, too. [End Page 101]

With clarity, a hallmark of his writing, Matovina deftly explains the complex and contentious issue of Latino assimilation. In their goal to assimilate on their own terms, some U.S. Latinos master English, negotiate American society, and, unlike some other immigrant groups, retain their language and links to their families’ homelands and culture. U.S.-born Latinos who forget their roots often work to recover them. Widespread access to Spanish language media and the ease of travel to Latin America (except Cuba) promote retention of language and culture. Matovina presents two specific issues concerning Latino assimilation into the U.S. Church. First, how might Latino Catholic devotions, “culturally inflected” to each Latin American country, be incorporated into the faith life of the Church in the U.S.? Finding a constructive solution would resolve the tension between maintaining Church unity while supporting vibrant Latino participation in Church life, and it would help Latinos to remain linked with their culture and address spiritual and social challenges in the U.S. Second, how could liturgy become inculturated in a way that welcomes Latinos? This question includes the use of Spanish and the selection of suitable songs and liturgical practices from the Latin American tradition because a leading cause of Latino Catholic defections to Protestantism is that the latter allows for the kind of worship Latinos want.

Matovina identifies the “national parish dynamic” as key for resolving the assimilation question. Such parish communities (or a place in a multi-ethnic parish community) give Latinos (and other new arrivals) a place to call their own, enabling them to integrate on their own terms with pastoral and social programs, and assimilating from a position of strength. Whichever way the U.S. Church negotiates assimilation, he advises against two extremes: to demand immediate assimilation, or to force them into prolonged separation from other Catholics to maintain their identity. He cautions, too, not to assume that Latino assimilation...


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