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

Timothy Matovina’s Latino Catholicism represents a major contribution to multiple fields of study including history of religion in America, U.S. Catholic history, and contextual theology. Drawing on twenty plus years of research, he delineates significant developments and recurring challenges in U.S. Latino/a Catholicism, especially in the last sixty years. He effectively places them within the deeper historical and cultural contexts of over five centuries of Hispanic presence in the Americas. Organized thematically, the book offers comprehensive and yet concise overviews of topics ranging from Latino “integration” and ministry within the U.S. Catholic context to their “leadership” and “public Catholicism” to inculturated forms of “worship and devotion.” In the final chapter, “Passing on the Faith,” Matovina concludes with a view of future challenges. The perspective ranges from broad overviews of movements and issues to intimate glimpses into individual lives through personal stories, frequently inspiring as acts of faith, other times troubling as instances of exclusion and discrimination.

Each chapter provides historical background related to its theme but the first provides the most focused and lengthy historical account. Chapter 1, entitled, “Remapping American Catholicism,” serves as an excellent historiographical essay addressing Latino/as’ absence and presence in U.S. Catholic histories. It raises critical questions about the adequacy of the familiar story tracing American Christian origins [End Page 104] from New England Puritanism with the Catholic version, after diverting briefly to Spanish and French missions, focusing on Maryland, then the great northeast urban centers, and finally a Euro-American migration to the West. Matovina’s account “remaps” Catholicism’s chronological starting point, its geographical site, the ongoing presence of a Catholic majority in the earliest European-settled region in the Americas, and development of a distinctive Spanish-speaking mestizo culture from the sixteenth century to the present.

As Matovina makes clear, Latino/as’ occasional presence in extant historical accounts can distort the historical record as much as their absence. Many accounts reinforce negative images of Hispanics as lazy, incompetent, or irreligious and, above all, in need of Euro-American correction. Among the memorable examples described, Matovina draws attention to the similarities between Willa Cather’s negative depiction of the New Mexican priest, Antonio José Martínez, in her historical novel, Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927), and the priests found in Maria Monk’s scurrilous anti-Catholic classic, Awful Disclosures of the Hôtel Dieu (1836). He then quotes Catholic critics who praise Cather’s saintly portrayal of the French archbishop, inspired by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe (1814-1888). Cather’s archbishop brings a Euro-American “civilizing” force to an alleged decadent New Mexican Catholicism. Given its continued popularity, the novel provides a telling example of less than critical acceptance of Latino stereotypes even among contemporary scholars and students who embrace its depiction of Catholicism’s great power and beauty and its ameliorating effects on a benighted people.

Matovina’s analysis of Latino Catholicism serves well as a study preparing for U.S. Catholicism’s future as it does in explaining its past. His review of sociological literature establishes Hispanics as reaching numerical majority in the near future of “America’s largest Church.” Chapters two through seven address key issues facing U.S. Latino Catholics, avoiding familiar tropes characterizing them either as oppositional to American culture or as simply assimilationist. Chapter 2, “Integration,” explores multiple variables that make Latino Catholicism distinctive in contrast to typical U.S. Catholic immigrant stories of inevitable assimilation. Variables inhibiting Latino Catholic assimilation include long-time presence and concentration in specific geographic areas, relative proximity of homelands, and most significantly the continual flow of new Hispanic immigrants to reinforce Spanish language and Hispanic cultures. On the other hand, Latino/as now live in small towns and large cities across the United States, where those who associate primarily with non-Hispanics assimilate. Reinforcing the complexities of Latino/a integration, his data indicate a majority express a desire both to retain their culture...


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