The roots of Catholicism run deep under the Rivera family tree. One of 17 children, my father Cruz (like my second son) is named for the cross. Dad was a deacon in the Catholic Church. My sister Irene was a parochial school principal and later a superintendent of diocesan schools on Long Island. And during my youth, my father’s side of our vast family was universally Catholic. I bring up my family’s experience because it mirrors the larger Latino community in this regard. The near universal adherence to the Catholic religion that existed among our clan into the 1980’s has been replaced by a religiously fragmented family, where many no longer follow the faith of Rome and St. Peter.
Slow to respond to competition, the old church lost much of its religious monopoly to energetic faiths that still preach the Gospels, but are perceived as doing so with more sincere charisma, energy and devotion to social justice than the old church.
Like tens of millions of other Latinos, over the last several decades many Riveras left the church and converted to evangelical Protestantism. My favorite cousin Lily (named after my mom) is now a highly regarded minister in an evangelical church in the Bronx. Lily’s journey reflects that of the family. The Catholicism that was virtually the only faith on dad’s side, now commands the allegiance of fewer than half.
There are many reasons for the religion’s declining share among the Riveras and among Latin Americans generally. Settled largely by the Catholic empires of Spain and Portugal, the faith for five centuries had a near monopoly from the American South to Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America. That dominance was squandered by a church that became part of the establishment of the empire. While many Latino priests adhered to vows of chastity and poverty or preached liberation theology and devoted themselves to serving the oppressed, many others in the church hierarchy associated with cruel militaristic regimes that rewarded the privileged at the expense of the masses.
The clergy often turned a blind eye to historical atrocities like the enslavement of the aboriginal people or, in the modern-era, political oppression and worse, like the Argentine military government’s infamous “Dirty War” against leftists in the late 1970’s that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Wracked by that and similar scandals, and slow to respond to competition, the old church lost much of its religious monopoly to energetic faiths that still preach the Gospels, but are perceived as doing so with more sincere charisma, energy and devotion to social justice than the old church.
It is estimated that almost 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in North or South America. Brazil alone has more than 130 million, Mexico another 96 million and Argentina over 30 million. The United States has 74 million Catholics, and at least a third of them are Latinos. But while still the dominant religion, from the near unanimity of my childhood, the Catholic Church in the New World has shrunken to less than 70 percent of Christians and the number is shrinking at an accelerated pace. In recent years, a new king of evangelical Catholicism has injected new energy into many Latino congregations, but it may not be enough to stem the outgoing tide.
As everyone knows, there are severe challenges facing the Church, including the financial and sexual abuse scandals that have spread misery, called into profound question doctrines like celibacy and devastated the Church’s credibility among millions. Those scandals probably forced Pope Benedict XVI into extraordinary retirement. With all that, this loss of Latino followers that I’ve been describing must have weighed heavily on the minds of the 115 cardinals who selected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be the pope.
Spanish-speaking, born in Buenos Aires of Italian immigrant parents, Pope Francis is the first non-European pontiff since the Dark Ages. Elation throughout the Latino world followed his election. Argentina is ecstatic. But some worry whether at 76 he is too old, or too theologically conservative or even perhaps not totally innocent of involvement in the dirty politics of his nation’s troubled past. Still, his humility and humanity shine through those misgivings and the elaborate rituals.
By now his story is well-known, how he rejected the trappings of power and wealth to minister to the poor and hungry. Whether this good and decent and Spanish-speaking man stops the precipitous decline of Latino Catholicism will depend on whether he can re-energize the priesthood, and convince congregants that he will lead the Church away from static homilies and the politics of appeasement and turn back to the teachings of Christ, Latino-style.