A Fundamental Gap

The current debates about the sexual abuse scandals in the church revolve around a litany of diagnoses and proposals for reform, touching such topics as clericalism, a culture of dissent, homosexuals in the priesthood, the need for accountability and shared episcopal authority, seminary reform, a reconsideration of mandatory celibacy and women’s ordination.

Conspicuously absent from much of public discourse on the controversy is the participation of Hispanics, who comprise one-third of U.S. Catholics. Rarely, however, are they cited in major media stories or invited to speak at scholarly symposia on the crisis. Indeed, the progressive-conservative dialectic is so prevalent as the sole category through which to engage the debate that, when Latinos are invited to comment publicly on this controversy, the questions posed to them invariably lead to the perception that they support one side or the other.


My conversations about the crisis with Hispanic leaders from various dioceses and organizations, like the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry, illuminate a different array of concerns from those that liberals and conservatives tend to emphasize. How will the current disarray in the church influence the institutional capacity to serve the desperate needs of Hispanic Catholics, many of whom struggle in poverty, especially the Hispanic immigrants who continue to arrive in large numbers? How much will the decline of the bishops’ credibility weaken their moral authority and political clout on social issues, as evidenced in the way the abuse scandal overshadowed the joint statement with the Mexican bishops on immigration in media coverage of the U.S. bishops’ meeting in November? Will there be funds to enact the pastoral vision of the bishops’ November statement Encuentro and Mission: A Renewed Pastoral Framework for Hispanic Ministry, or will it largely go unfunded or underfunded like the National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry that it seeks to reinvigorate? How many Hispanic ministry offices will be closed or curtailed, how many Hispanic ministry personnel laid off as bishops struggle to deal with the financial fallout from the lawsuits?

These questions underlie a fundamental gap between many Hispanic Catholics in the United States and Catholics of European descent. Over the past three decades, Euro-American Catholics have tended to give most attention to the internal dynamics of the church: liturgical reform, the voice and role of the laity, dissent or obedience to sexual ethics and other church teaching, the proper exercise of authority, the question of who is called to ordination. The focus on these issues tends to produce debates along a liberal-conservative continuum, an approach so familiar that its application to the abuse controversy is as much reflex as it is a conscious choice.

Hispanics, on the other hand, have been much more inclined in recent decades to accentuate the mission of the church, frequently calling for more funding for Hispanic ministry offices, youth initiatives, outreach efforts, and leadership training and formation programs, as well as an increase in Spanish Masses, Hispanic bishops, celebrations of feast days that are part of their Hispanic traditions and culturally sensitive formation programs for seminarians and other Hispanic leaders. While these efforts encompass and reflect attempts at internal reform in areas like liturgy and participation in ecclesial leadership, they are primarily directed at the larger concern of equipping the church to serve and accompany its Hispanic members in their faith and daily struggles. In a word, while Hispanic Catholic leaders frequently perceive the U.S. Catholic Church as a significant institution that could do much to uplift their suffering sisters and brothers, American Catholic leaders of European origin tend to be more concerned with democratization and the adaptation of the church to the U.S. milieu or, conversely, with the alarming worry that U.S. Catholicism has in fact already progressed much too far along the road to becoming more American than Catholic.

Hispanic leaders’ concerns about the social and advocacy roles of the church reveal that, besides the split between the right and the left, another significant divide in U.S. Catholicism is one the late Jesuit sociologist Joseph P. Fitzpatrick called the Hispanic poor in a middle class church (America, 7/2/88). The contemporary U.S. Catholic church is neither an immigrant church nor an Americanized church. Rather, it is a church run largely by middle-class Catholics of European descent, together with growing numbers of Hispanic, Asian and some African immigrants, along with sizable contingents of native-born Latinos, African Americans and some Native Americans. Like European immigrants of previous generations, many members of these groups look to the church as a potential refuge and support in the trials and tribulations of their daily lives.

Certainly clerical misconduct and episcopal irresponsibility affect Hispanics as much as any other Catholics. Mexican-American victims of sexual abuse are among those who pressed the California legislature to lift legal restrictions on abuse cases. The outrage and disgust these and other Hispanic Catholics have expressed about the abuse scandal contradict the perception that Hispanics are too pious and docile to contest ecclesial authorities, a stereotypical view that some church officials unfortunately posit unilaterally to contrast faithful Hispanics and the allegedly unfaithful American Catholics of European origin who publicly criticize church policies and leaders. Many of the issues raised by both conservatives and liberals are also important to a broad range of Hispanics, from recent immigrants to established middle-class residents. Nonetheless, the current discourse is woefully inadequate in terms of the historic moment in which the U.S. Catholic Church finds itself. This meltdown in ecclesial credibility is yet another obstacle to the urgent task of discovering and nourishing the hope and promise of the Hispanic presence in U.S. Catholicism.

I am not suggesting that church leaders employ delaying tactics or unscrupulous legal practices in the face of mounting lawsuits, further oppressing victims in order to preserve scarce funds for Hispanic ministry efforts. Nor am I discounting the importance of seeking common ground between conservatives and liberals. I am not arguing that the reforms both sides propose are insignificant or unsound, or that a focus on structural reform and revitalizing the church’s mission are not intrinsically related, or that Hispanic leaders alone have highlighted the impact of the lawsuits on the church’s fiscal capacity to sustain vital ministries such as those in education, health care and social services. I am not calling for a return to the days of the immigrant church, when most Catholics supposedly prayed, paid and obeyed without question because the church’s significance and social function in their lives made it too important an institution to criticize. Nor am I merely making some banal call for more inclusiveness in discussions about church issues and concerns, as too often such a cry results in one more chair being added at the table but no change in the terms of the discussion. My purpose is in one sense much more modest, but also far more fundamental: I propose that debates within U.S. Catholicism, like the current controversy about the sexual abuse scandal, transcend the progressive-conservative framework that so often dismisses and silences the primary concerns of numerous Hispanic (and other) Catholics.

However faintly or loudly articulated in the channels of Catholic opinion making, Hispanic leaders’ perspectives, insights and intuitionssuch as the emphasis on continuing to support and develop the evangelizing ministry of the church among Hispanics and other groups, along with necessary internal reformsmust be part of our collective deliberations as a faith community.

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