Their Distinctive Presence
The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 275p $22.95 (paperback)
American Catholics have persisted in viewing both U.S. secular and church history as primarily a movement of Northern European people and institutions westward across the barren plains. But the deeper truth that inexorably is catching up with us is that it is also, increasingly, the history of movements northward of Hispanic American people and institutions. This dynamic is both old and new.
David A. Badillo, historian and researcher of U.S. Latino religion, makes a major contribution to our understanding of this still unappreciated trend by illuminating the nature of “the new immigrant church.” His ambitious narrative, Latinos and the New Immigrant Church, goes far in revealing Catholicism’s role now as well as in the past in the human, social, political and cultural reality of Latinos. The author lays out a fascinating view of what U.S. Catholicism is becoming as it undergoes Latinoization. Thereby he offers an antidote to the repetitive romanticism and clichés that for too long have characterized discourse on this pivotal topic. The drama has everything to do with the shape and tone of today’s U.S. Catholicism and even more of tomorrow’s.
Badillo focuses on the three major U.S. Latino groups—Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. He provides tight historical syntheses of the origins and evolution of each group’s Catholicism and then views each in one of its principal urban contexts: San Antonio for the Mexican Americans, New York and Chicago for the Puerto Ricans and, of course, Miami for the Cubans. An underlying lesson throughout the work is the substantial role played by Catholicism and more recently Protestantism in the forging of Latino communities everywhere. He is particularly aware of the contributions Latinos are making to urbanism in America and of how their religious identities, customs and organizations have helped create today’s cities and barrios. Badillo demonstrates how religious practices and associations have mightily contributed to the regeneration of these communities over time. He points to a relatively new phenomenon: the growing movement of Latinos into the suburbs. As a matter of fact, the 2000 U.S. census shows that the majority of Latinos now live in suburbs rather than inner cities.
The author outlines Latino engagement in major issues of social policy such as housing and underscores the crucial role played by church-sponsored community organizing efforts like Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio. The real story of community organizing, the Catholic Church’s decisive role in promoting it and the resulting benefits derived especially for Latino communities is still a well-kept secret. Badillo helps set the record straight. The chapter titled “Powers of the Prelates: Urban Hierarchies Contrasted” tells the story of the groundbreaking efforts made by Cardinal Francis Spellman, Cardinal Samuel Stritch and Archbishop Robert Lucey, influential prelates of the 1940’s and 50’s who responded creatively to Latino needs. The book therefore makes a fine contribution to U.S. Catholic Church history by clarifying the impact of these and other churchmen and lay leaders upon the lives of Latinos.
The final chapter, on globalization and the emerging new immigrant church, is a perceptive essay that pulls together a number of key issues facing Latinos as they move forward to become the norm rather than the anomaly among U.S. Catholics. The author raises the issue of parallel, mutual changes taking place among Latinos and within the church itself. He talks about lay leadership development, parish councils and the vigor of global religious movements that rival the parish’s grip on the lives of Latino faithful. Following the lead of Latino theologians, Badillo gives special importance to popular religion as constituting the inner core of Latino Catholicism and therefore as the key element of Latino identity that demands attention as it evolves under the forces of modernization and globalization.
Some critics may note that the author pays scant attention to the major U.S. Latino region, namely, California and the West. At least a third of all U.S. Latinos are to be found there. But this is understandable, I think, given that San Antonio certainly provides an adequate context for telling the story of the Mexican-Americans (even though their demographic center is more to the west). The San Antonio experience provides a particularly rich and more studied instance of Mexican-American history. It has benefited from the perceptive writings of historians and theologians like Timothy Matovina and Roberto Goizueta. Badillo, in choosing to focus on that illustrious city, incorporates their insights and those of several other researchers into his work. Moreover, there are studies, more limited and less ambitious than Badillo’s (my The Second Wave, for example) that treat the subject of Mexican American religion specifically in California. So the author, in my view, was wise to limit the scope as he did.
I do, however, have a complaint. In his treatment of Puerto Rican Catholicism, it is surprising that no reference is made to Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., for many years a professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York. If my sources are correct, Fitzpatrick’s role is not peripheral, either to the story of Puerto Rican Catholicism in New York or to the actions of Cardinal Spellman in organizing and supporting the first Hispanic ministry in that archdiocese.
I am deeply impressed with David Badillo’s accomplishment. I know of no other work that succeeds so well in revealing the scope, complexity and depth of the reality of Latino religion in America. Badillo has the discipline of an historian, which allows him to build his narrative carefully from a wide range of sources—including the original, insightful writings of Puerto Rican theologian/historian Jaime Vidal and many others. Badillo writes competently, and his dense text never bores the reader.
For years Latino church leaders, Catholic and Protestant, have lamented the abysmal lack of attention given to Latino religion by historians and social scientists. A certain secular, academic mind-set allergic to the topic of religion has tended to ignore or bracket this reality. Yet a fuller account of the Latino presence and its implications for U.S. Catholicism and society in general demand that religion be given its due. In the case specifically of Latinos, few topics could be more relevant. Indeed, Badillo’s scholarship goes a long way in establishing just how and why religion and the churches (Catholic and Protestant) are key to understanding Latino culture and society in the United States. Faith and church communities are major, if not the major players in the ongoing construction of Latino ways of life across the nation. Hence the timeliness and urgency of Badillo’s message.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Their Distinctive Presence,” in the December 4, 2006, issue.