- Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church by Timothy Matovina
In the past two decades, demographic shifts have affected the Catholic Church more than any other religious institution. The Hispanic presence in North America predates the founding of the United States, yet in the nation’s historiography popular and academic historians have neglected or marginalized Latino/a contributions. Given that Latino/as now represent over 35 percent of the U.S. Catholic Church’s members, with two-thirds of Latino/as (68%) identifying themselves as Catholic, the nation’s largest church can no longer ignore this vibrant and diverse population.
Timothy Matovina’s nuanced interdisciplinary analysis of U.S. Latino Catholicism looks at how U.S. Catholicism has at various times ignored, resisted, and embraced the “browning” of America, while recognizing that obstacles to integration do not always originate within the institutional church but reflect resistance to “assimilation” by immigrant populations. Consequently, he offers a new approach for analyzing the mutually enriching dialogue between U.S. culture, the Catholic Church, and various Latino/a populations. He thereby transcends the stale “immigrant-to-Americanization” paradigm used to describe the integration of European Catholic immigrants. In its place Matovina envisions a Hispanic presence that gradually transforms U.S. Catholicism in great part because of Latino/a Catholicism’s ability to retain its distinct cultural identity by resisting the wholesale assimilation characteristic of prior Catholic immigrant populations in the United States.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the Hispanic population, currently 50.5 million, or 16 percent of the general population, makes Latino/as the fastest growing segment of the population, accounting for more than half of the growth in the total U.S. population between 2000 and 2010. Latino/as in the United States represent a diversity of national origins, no less than twenty-one Latin American countries represented, with Mexicans (63%), Puerto Ricans (9.2%), and Cubans (3.5%) comprising the largest subgroups. Accordingly, many Latino/as still identify themselves by referencing their country of origin saying, “I am Puerto Rican” or “I am Cuban,” rather than, “I am Latino/a” or “I am Hispanic.” Nevertheless, it is possible to examine the development of Latino/a Catholicism as a unified group in the United States because of a common linguistic and religious heritage along with a shared experience of cultural, political, economic, and ecclesial marginalization. As a Latino/a Protestant theologian I welcome Timothy Matovina’s comprehensive study of Latino/a Catholics not only for what it reveals about Catholicism, but for what it contributes to the broader understanding of Latino/as in the United States. The Iberian Catholic tradition has indelibly shaped Latino/a Christianity. Culturally, U.S. Hispanic and Latin American Protestants have more in common with sixteenth-century Iberian Catholicism than with the cultures of nineteenth- and twentieth-century North American Protestantism. Accordingly, the proper cultural matrix for understanding Latino/a religiosity is the complex mestizaje of Christian symbols and practices introduced (some would say imposed) by the Iberian conquerors into a receptive indigenous spirituality that over time incorporated aspects [End Page 108] of African religions, and in the last century has also absorbed the theologies of Protestant missionaries.
A highly sacramental outlook characterizes Hispanic Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, grounded in the belief that God is immanently present in the world and in our day-to-day lives (lo cotidiano). Such a view can be traced to the Iberian-Catholic heritage of the late medieval period; a popular religiosity rife with belief in angels, demons, and other supernatural forces, revealing a widespread belief in God’s direct involvement in human lives. While the official church condemned these popular attitudes and practices as idolatrous and superstitious, a “magico-religious mind-set,” according to Spanish historian Francisco Javier Fernández Conde, prevailed in the popular religiosity of the Iberian conquerors. This understanding of reality resonated with both indigenous animistic religions of the New World and clandestine religions of African slaves, and integrated a deep sense of mystery...