Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Symbolic Realism of U.S. Latino/a Popular Catholicism

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Symbolic Realism of U.S. Latino/a Popular Catholicism

Article excerpt


The borders dividing cultures and nations in this hemisphere are becoming increasingly porous not only to the waves of new immigrants but also to economic forces, communications media, and information technologies unfettered by geographical boundaries. In his postsynodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, Pope John Paul II challenged Catholics in the Americas to acknowledge this reality, recognizing both its dangers and its promise as a potential source of renewal for the Church in America. In this article, I suggest that U.S. Latino/a popular Catholicism--or the way in which Latinos/as concretely live their Catholicism--offers the Catholic Church in the United States the possibility of recovering forgotten aspects of the Catholic tradition, thereby contributing to the development of a Church both Catholic and American in the fullest sense of both terms. More specifically, the religious practices of Latino/a Catholics represent the enduring, "subversive" presence of a religious worldview quite different from that of most modern (or postmodern) Western Catholics. If such a modern countercultural worldview is itself inevitably flawed and in need of critique, it nevertheless offers the possibility of envisioning a way beyond the conservative-liberal divide that cuts through the heart of the Church in the United States today.

At the same time, we all live amidst powerful sociocultural forces that distort or block a genuine encounter with Latino/a popular Catholicism. Thus I examine some of the ideological and sociocultural obstacles to such an encounter, particularly the obstacles represented, on the one hand, by a globalized market economy and, on the other, by an ideological rationalism. Both often function to undermine the transformative power of symbols.


To understand the present and future of American Catholicism, one must understand the different histories of the Catholic Church in Latin America and in the United States. The roots of Latin American Catholicism are found in Iberian medieval and baroque Christianity, whereas the roots of Euroamerican Catholicism are found in Northern European post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism. As historian William Christian has noted, the medieval Christian worldview and faith were not seriously threatened in Spain "until ... the late eighteenth century." (1) Consequently, Iberian Catholicism was not forced to develop a response to the Reformers' arguments or to rebut them point by point-as, also, European Catholics in the United States would later be forced to do. (2)

In order to defend itself against the Protestant "threat" to orthodoxy, Northern European Catholicism would become increasingly rationalist, demanding a clarity, precision, and uniformity in doctrinal formulations that were simply unnecessary in areas where "Catholic" and "Christian" continued to be essentially interchangeable terms. In Spain, there was no urgent need to define, clarify, and distinguish Catholic belief, especially in the wake of the Reconquista and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. (3) (It is no coincidence that Thomas Cajetan, a "father" of modern neo-Scholasticism, was also the papal legate to Germany who, in the 16th century, examined Martin Luther and helped draft the papal bull Exsurge Domine that condemned Luther.) It would be the more rationalist, northern European Catholicism that would take hold in the English colonies. It is this understanding of Catholicism that continues to inform the U.S. Catholic establishment to this day, whether conservative or liberal. (4) As Allan Figueroa Deck has pointed out:

Anglo American Catholicism is rooted in the experience of the eighteenth-century English Catholic settlers of Maryland. These people were truly English. They were also Catholic, yet imbued with the culture of modernity that Great Britain disseminated through its legal system, burgeoning commerce and industry, and its relatively democratic ideology. …

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