Just when the American Roman Catholic Church thought it had left its Old World immigrant image behind, a new wave of ethnics is moving in and creating new challenges.
Although growing increasingly mainstream, urbane and lay-oriented, the nation's largest faith is also growing predominantly Latino.
"The Catholic Church has once again become an immigrant church, as it was last century," said Father Alan Deck, director of Hispanic Ministries for the Diocese of Orange. "It is involved with the concerns of outsiders, the poor, the downtrodden . . . immigrant issues."
The current controversy involving Catholic Church workers providing sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees is only a small fraction of the church's involvement with Latinos.
"It's a recapture of our identity," said Father Juan Romero, a Los Angeles priest who is leading a series of regional conferences, or encuentros, to devise strategy for a greater Latino voice in running the church at all levels.
The fastest growing ethnic group in both the nation and the church, Latinos make up at least 30%, or as many as 17 million, of the U.S. Catholic Church's 52.5 million members. By the year 2000, the percentage is expected to top 40%. In Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the nation with 2.56 million Catholics, perhaps 1.6 million (70%) are Latinos.
Two likely candidates to succeed Cardinal Timothy Manning of Los Angeles, who has reached the mandatory retirement age of 75, are Archbishop Roberto Sanchez of Santa Fe, N.M., and Archbishop Patricio Flores of San Antonio, both Latinos. There are 17 Latino bishops in the U.S. Catholic hierarchy.
Meanwhile, Latino lay ministers are forging models for emerging ethnic parishes.
Latino activists say the Diocese of San Bernardino has become a showplace of "base communities"--non-territorial parishes governed by lay ministers. The diocese is also known for its leadership training of Latino lay workers and its advocacy of peace and justice causes.
"It's a sense of ownership, an at-homeness . . . so we are not strangers to our church on the outside looking in," Romero said. "We have been invited to speak up and contribute."
Number of Challenges
The Latino explosion is coming at a time when the American Catholic Church is facing a drastic shortage of priests and nuns, a determination by more and more of its laity to steer an independent course on moral and spiritual matters and a feisty activism on the part of its bishops to expound the social applications of their faith in the marketplace and before Congress.
Parishes are large and growing larger, with a fifth having more than 5,000 members and another fifth serving between 2,000 and 5,000 people.
But in rural America, where the Catholic presence--and family farms--are dwindling, there is a fight for survival.
"Some rural communities are becoming old folks' homes," lamented Father Leonard Keyser of Des Moines, Iowa, director of the National Rural Life Conference.
Suburban parishes have their own problems: mobility, lack of personal involvement and concern, rootlessness, not enough parochial schools, division from other Catholics.
Some dioceses are combating that chasm between suburban, rural and inner-city Catholics by "twinning" projects: Affluent parishes are matched up with poorer ones. In all of them, lay leadership is becoming increasingly important.
A non-priest--either a married deacon or a lay person--has supplanted clerics as the central authority figure in 10% of the parishes examined in a decade-long study by the University of Notre Dame.
"The picture of a parish where Father O'Brien took care of God, Sister Cerita ran the school and the people met their Mass obligations and said 'Hail Marys' would be a woefully inadequate stereotype of U.S. Catholic parishes in the 1980s," the report said.
Nearly half of the Catholics surveyed participate in parish activities beyond weekly Mass, including an increasing number of spiritual renewal and education programs.
"The church's strength is in the laity, the grass-roots community, the parish church, the emerging Catholic elite," said Andrew Greeley, the sociologist-priest and author. "These people, in a flowering of Catholic culture, will re-articulate the Christian faith for our time."
Bernard Cooke, who teaches theology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., has noted how U.S. lay ministries are "bouncing over old boundaries." There are far-reaching implications to the fact that American Catholics "have more than ever moved away from the view that there is a world of sacred realities that are to be handled only by sacred people," he wrote.
But Peter Hebblethwaite, Vatican affairs writer for the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal U.S. weekly newspaper, said the Vatican feels threatened by so many lay people taking leadership roles in North American Catholicism: "Rome likes the laity on a short leash."
Indeed, sympathized Father Thomas P. O'Malley, president of John Carroll University, a Jesuit-run school in Cleveland, U.S. pastors and bishops find it tough to yield to today's "collegial Catholics":
"Now, you've got to have a committee for everything . . . to decide things like decorating the church--to have statues or not to have statues."
Amid this move by the laity for greater roles in the church has come a call from black Catholics to also be given a stronger voice in church leadership and racial progress.
'Ashamed of Our Faith'
Although blacks comprise an estimated 11% (26 million) of the U.S. population, there are only about 1 million black Catholics and 300 black priests. In the last 15 years, however, several black Catholic interest groups, coordinated by the National Office of Black Catholics, have been formed to map out an agenda for the 1980s.
"In recent years we seemed almost ashamed of our faith," Bishop Joseph Francis of Newark, N.J., one of 10 U.S. black bishops, said in a special issue of U.S. Catholic magazine on American Catholics. "Now I see a new pride in our faith. . . . We have something valuable to share."
In order to share the heritage of black culture and black theology, some black Catholic leaders have proposed establishing a national black seminary and extending the priesthood to older married black men who may have been excluded in their younger years by racist policies in the American church.
The proposal for married black priests, however, is apt to fall on deaf ears at the Vatican.
Although married Anglican clergy who converted to Catholicism have been accepted since 1980 for ordination as Catholic clergy, that avenue has produced only a trickle of new Catholic priests. Many observers think it is unlikely the accommodation--made after the Episcopal Church permitted the ordination of women--will be extended to other groups, at least not in this century.
Without a doubt, the shortage of shepherds for a growing flock is the U.S. Catholic Church's most crucial problem of the 1980s.
57,891 Ordained Priests
A report released in December by the U.S. Catholic Conference noted that in the first 15 years after the Second Vatican Council, a significant number of priests left the active ministry through retirement and resignation, the number of diocesan priests declined and the seminarian population dropped by more than half.
The Official Catholic Directory for 1984 lists 57,891 ordained priests in this country. But by the year 2000, the projected number available will be 17,000--about the same number as in 1925.
The situation for women and men in religious orders is just as bleak: Between 1958 and 1962--the "golden days" for Catholic religious vocations--32,433 women entered orders; during the most recent period recorded, 1976 to 1980, there were just 2,767. The total of U.S. nuns in canonical orders is 118,000.
The average age of Catholic sisters is 60, and 40% of the priests are over 55, studies show.
But there are a few bright spots.
For example, a pioneering, independent national corps of nuns in a non-canonical association (it has not sought Vatican approval) has sprung up. The Sisters for Christian Community, with 600 members, is "the fastest growing sisterhood in the world," said Sister Lillanna Kopp, a founding member.
The sisters work and support themselves in a variety of fields and professions and continue vows of poverty and celibacy--but they substitute "service" for the standard "obedience" of canonical orders.
And to help fill the clerical gap, the church has been ordaining male "permanent deacons" since 1971. Now numbering more than 7,000, these deacons may be married and hold secular jobs. Deacons are empowered to preach, conduct prayer and Communion services, officiate at baptisms, marriages and funerals and perform a variety of other semi-clerical tasks.
Balancing a tight-wire act between lay ministry and mini-priest, a deacon cannot say Mass, the central act of Catholic worship at which a male priest--and only a priest--may consecrate the bread and the wine.
Although the church has eased its manpower shortage by plugging in lay people, there are some short circuits in the lines of power.
Father Philip Murnion, who traveled 250,000 miles over four years studying American parishes, found that although 80% had lay councils, fewer than 5% of the parishioners regarded them as vital sources of parish life.
In Missoula, Mont., a group of parishioners at Christ the King Church, upset by the transfer of their pastor, formed a breakaway congregation and celebrated Mass without a priest. In Annandale, Va., the pastor of Holy Spirit Church disbanded the parish council several years ago in a dispute with his parishioners over liturgy.
Indeed, for rank-and-file Catholics, the greatest effect of Vatican II was felt in liturgical changes in the Mass: from Latin to the vernacular, with the priest facing the congregation, and with lay readers, commentators and distributors of the Eucharist.
Surprising, perhaps, is the finding of the Notre Dame study that the changes--initially resisted by many U.S. Catholics--are now widely accepted; nearly everyone likes the addition of congregational singing, although a large minority thinks that the quality of church music and singing needs improvement.
Although guitar and rock Masses have had their day, a diversity of worship forms is still proliferating in the mid-1980s. For instance, the free-wheeling charismatic, or neo-Pentecostal, style of worship (an estimated 6 million U.S. Catholics identify with the charismatic renewal movement with its speaking in tongues and prophetic utterances) sets priests and sisters to "dancing in the Spirit."
Spanish-language and mariachi Masses also are commonplace, but the new liturgy is "an insuperable problem for the Hispanics," according to O'Malley. "The old liturgy had music, statues, pageantry, pomp. . . . It looks like we're losing tons of these people. The storefront evangelicals are getting them."
Despite the influx of Latino immigrants--perhaps nearly 90% have a Catholic background--an estimated 15% of Latino Catholics leave the church and join fundamentalist Protestant groups.
Liturgy 'Terribly Passive'
"While preaching has become ever so much more scriptural," O'Malley observed, "the liturgy is still terribly passive. . . . There is no 'dance.' "
What is needed, added O'Malley, who writes his own Scripture hymns to 16th-Century tunes, is "music, poetry and little dance movements people could learn--without going to Martha Graham--to make them more integrated into the worship."
That would horrify the Catholic conservatives, who believe that their church is under siege and who dislike most of the changes since Vatican II.
Although the conservatives defy neat categorizing, many feel compelled to defend the American church from its leadership, which they perceive as drifting far from the days when the church was a bastion of stability in a sea of change.
Conservative groups like Catholics United for the Faith are committed to preserving traditional liturgy and traditional morality, which--much in league with the ideals of Baptist minister Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority--means opposing sex education, abortion and homosexuality and fighting pornography.
Although opinions differ as to whether conservative U.S. Catholics are keeping the faith together or holding it back, the pews are also filled with many who hold both liberal and conservative views at the same time.
Confessions, the rite in which Catholics confess their sins to a priest so that they may receive forgiveness, have declined sharply in the last decade; more and more Catholics believe that they can obtain forgiveness directly from God. But a Gallup poll released in January by a traditionalist group found that 40% of the respondents would welcome a return to the Latin-language Mass as an option. (Although the Latin Mass was all but put in mothballs 20 years ago in favor of the English version, it is now experiencing a resurgence in some parishes.)
Still, Catholic conservatism, seen in Pope John Paul II's insistence on private confessions to priests and his emphasis on prayers and devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, has done little to promote smooth relations with American Protestants.
Although O'Malley sees a "very enriching" ecumenical spirit in theological seminaries and divinity schools, he thinks that the interfaith impetus of the Second Vatican Council has largely not been carried forward.
"It is a great dream that has fallen on evil days," he said. "I wish we had gotten a little further when the dynamism was with us."
Yet even O'Malley admits that there are ways that America's faiths are pulling together. A new interdenominational lectionary, or listing of Scripture passages to be read on a specified Sunday in local churches, means that Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics may "all be reading the same Scripture on the same day," he noted.
Other ecumenical gains from the Second Vatican Council include an appreciation for Jews and non-Roman Catholic Christians and the emphasis on collegiality--balancing the one-sided teaching of papal supremacy and infallibility that had long been Catholic hallmarks.
Although it is not yet binding on either church, Catholic and Lutheran theologians reached an agreement in 1983 on the nature of justification by faith, the prickly doctrine that stimulated and sustained the Protestant Reformation.
Last November, the U.S. Catholic bishops approved an Anglican-Roman Catholic evaluation of agreement between the two groups on the Eucharist, ministry and authority and asked the Vatican to consider an eventual Anglican-Catholic reunion.
But theological consensus and dialogues must confront deeper issues arising from shared faith and common social responsibilities, said David O'Brien, a Holy Cross College historian and a member of the Roman Catholic-Southern Baptist dialogue team.
His hometown of Worcester, Mass., where the Catholic bishop had long been known as a leading ecumenist, erupted into heated controversy several years ago, O'Brien wrote, over whether to build an abortion clinic.
"The issue turned into a battle between Catholics and Protestants, and it exposed the fragile and shallow nature of those 20 years of talking together."
And what about American Catholics of the future?
Father Joseph A. O'Hare, editor of America, a Jesuit magazine, agrees with Greeley's description of "communal Catholics" as the future wave. But he does not equate pluralism--different modes of understanding and celebrating the faith--with "smorgasbord Catholics who pick and choose what they want to believe and practice."
The real issue to O'Hare, and to others interviewed for this article, is authority:
"I certainly don't want pluralism to be the result of indifference about fundamentals or a soupy sentimentalism that feels religious faith to be so much a matter of the heart that understanding is trivial and theology a distraction," O'Hare wrote in a guest column published in U.S. Catholic magazine.
Monika K. Hellwig, a Georgetown University professor, envisions a church in which the clergy function as ministers, teachers and coordinators rather than as all-powerful prescribers of right and wrong.
Richard P. McBrien, chairman of Notre Dame's theology department, sees the Catholic Church embracing a greater "recognition that it must appear to be what it is."
For example, he said, if a bishop takes over a new diocese, he cannot move into a $1-million house just because it was given to the diocese:
"The bishop may sleep on a board, eat peanuts and drink water for dinner, but a million-dollar house projects the opposite image from what a church leader should give."
Greeley and his sister, Mary Durkin, co-authors of "How to Save the Catholic Church," believe that its future is not with the bureaucrats but in a return to angels and saints, blessings and religious medals, natural law and the traditional Catholic social ethic.
"Leadership will come from the grass roots and artists and scholars," Greeley said. "And the storytellers. . . . Images, stories and the community keep bringing people back."
O'Malley thinks that although American Catholicism's monolithic unity is forever shattered, the center will hold. It will, that is, on the condition that the faithful "hold on to the essentials--salvation, the resurrection of the body . . . and not worry about the things on the fringe."
He added: "We're very lucky to have held the whole thing together this far, this long."
ATTITUDES AMONG U.S. CATHOLICS These figures reflect responses to a Los Angeles Times Poll conducted nationally Feb. 23-28, 1985, based on 2,506 telephone interviews with adults 18 and older. In most of the data, the number of Jews responding was too small to analyze. DEMOGRAPHICS Roman Catholics tend to be younger than Protestants and Jews, and younger than the U.S. population as a whole. Catholics are better educated, more apt to be employed and make better incomes than Protestants and the country's population as a whole.
% CATHOLIC % PROTESTANT % U.S. POP. Age 18-39 62 46 48 Completed high school 79 68 69 College graduate 22 15 16 Postgraduate work 9 5 6 Presently employed 74 65 65 Hold management jobs 36 29 31 Hold blue-collar jobs 38 47 45 Income above $30,000 48 32 36
POLITICS Compared with Protestants and the U.S. population, Catholics tend to be somewhat liberal politically. Catholics also tend to be pro-labor--but less likely to be members of a labor union--than Protestants or the nation.
% CATHOLIC % PROTESTANT % U.S. POP. Party affiliation: Democratic 51 46 48 Party affiliation: Republican 23 37 32 Politically "liberal" 34 22 27 Pro-labor 49 39 43 Union member 25 28 27 Favor nuclear freeze 73 68 70 Oppose more defense funds 60 50 54 Would hire homosexuals 71 57 61 Favor gun control 58 52 53
RESIDENCE AND BACKGROUND
Catholics are more numerous in the East and more often live in large cities than in rural areas.They are under-represented, compared to Protestants and the nation at large, among blacks.
% CATHOLIC % PROTESTANT % U.S. POP. Reside in East 38 22 25 Reside in South 15 35 30 Reside in urban areas 89 75 79 Reside in rural areas 11 25 21 Ethnic background: Latino 14 3 6 Ethnic background: Irish 26 21 22 Ethnic background: Italian 16 2 5 Ethnic background: black 2 13 10
FAITH AND MARRIAGE While more Catholics than Protestants said they were "moderately religious," Protestants were more likely to consider themselves "strongly religious" and to have had a "born-again" religious experience. The poll found negligible differences among Catholics, Protestants and the nation on abortion, divorce and remarriage.
% CATHOLIC % PROTESTANT % U.S. POP. Religion: strong 26 37 34 Religion: moderate 51 46 48 Religion: non-practicing 23 17 18 Generally favor abortion 52 49 50 Marital Status: married 58 65 62 Marital Status: separated 3 2 3 Marital Status: divorced 8 7 7 Marital Status: remarried 3 3 3