Our Lady of Guadalupe. Wikimedia Commons

Ecclesia in America? An Urgent Question

The positive contribution of Hispanic culture to the Anglo-Saxon world and the Church’s challenge in serving the Hispanic presence: an interview with Mario Paredes.
Lorenzo Albacete

Mr. Mario Paredes is currently National Director for the United States Hispanic Market of the investment firm Merrill Lynch. A native of Chile, for twenty-five years Mr Paredes served the Catholic bishops of the United States as Executive Director of the Hispanic Catholic Center. Few people in the United States know as much about the Hispanic presence in the Church as does Mr Paredes. The links he made between Hispanic Catholics in the United States and the bishops of their country of origin anticipated the vision of the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America. He is interviewed here by Msgr Lorenzo Albacete, himself a native of Puerto Rico.

Hispanics come from many nations and local traditions. What unites them other than a basic language? Is it possible to speak of one “Hispanic culture”?
It is not possible to speak of one Hispanic culture but it is possible to speak of one Hispanic presence. Twenty-one countries have sent immigrants to our land. They all speak Spanish; the overwhelming majority professes the Catholic faith; and they all share some common historical background. Today, in the U.S., we could clearly speak of one Spanish-speaking people with many cultural experiences.

Has the Catholic Church in the United States responded adequately to the challenges and opportunities of the Hispanic presence? Have the Hispanics made an impact on the life of the Church in the United States?
In the 1950s, there were three million Hispanics in the U.S. population. To Church leaders, this percentage was not considered to be a significant number. Immigrants were viewed more as transitional workers and not permanent members of the community. Today, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are 39 million Spanish-speaking official residents in the U.S. We have 30 bishops of Hispanic background. We have a national office, six regional offices, and over 140 diocesan offices of Hispanic Affairs. We have ordained over 2,000 Hispanic priests. In addition, we have over 1,600 Spanish-speaking priests from Spain, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Bishops are being asked to communicate in Spanish. The cardinals of Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, DC, to name a few, are fully bilingual. Liturgies are filled with Hispanic cultural traces. Catechesis is conducted in Spanish in more than 3,000 parishes.

What is the biggest threat to the Hispanic Catholic identity in the United States?
The biggest threat to the Hispanic Catholic identity lies in secularism and in the cultural revolution taking place and spreading through the influence of the mass media. The second largest threat has to do with aggressive proselytism from other churches. The third largest threat has to do with the lack of sufficient bilingual personnel to serve this massive wave of immigrants, as well as the lack of institutions and organizations designed to address the needs of this population in areas such as schools, health services, legal organizations, continuing education, and adaptation to the new cultural situation and new language. By not addressing these issues, we run the risk of ending up with a population that lives in a parallel society; one that is never integrated and therefore one that does not advance in the social ladder. The mission of the Church to present the fullness of the Gospel of the Lord includes giving witness to it in the current cultural milieu, just as the Church did in the past immediately after the arrival of the conquistadors in the New World. She developed and promoted a Catholic culture.

Most Hispanics, like most Catholics, vote for the Democratic Party. The Republicans are said to be making a great effort to recruit Hispanic votes by emphasizing the “cultural issues” that have made many Catholic Democrats vote Republican. Is this strategy working?
It is obvious that the Republican Party has chosen to attract the Hispanic vote. It is not an accident that the President of the U.S. makes every possible effort to speak Spanish in front of Hispanic audiences. Today, it is clear that Hispanic voters are more in tune with the platform of the Republican Party in moral and ethical issues. Hispanics do not advocate for abortion. Hispanics do not approve of homosexuality. Hispanics defend the family in its traditional conception and work for the unity of the family. Hispanics don’t trust big government. In these areas, Hispanics identify more with the Republican Party. Democrats, traditionally Catholic, defenders of the working class, and committed to assist the poor, in recent years have sent confusing signals and messages when they advocate a so-called pro-choice position on abortion, same-sex marriages, big government, and other such issues. There is no doubt that we are witnessing a cultural war in our society. Many Catholics are disenchanted with the Democratic party and choose to vote Republican.

In a recent essay, the distinguished scholar Samuel P. Huntington argued that Hispanics have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture because they reject the “Anglo-Protestant” values behind the American dream. This seems to imply that assimilation requires the loss of identity as a Catholic people. In view of the experience of other Catholic immigrants, how do you respond to this charge?
The vast majority of Hispanics came to this country for economic reasons, educational opportunities, and, in some cases, for political reasons. Until very recently, Hispanics have never faced the Anglo-Protestant culture. It was in the early 1960s, when Hispanics began to articulate their struggle for civil rights, that they discovered the clash of values between Catholic and Protestant traditions. Segments of the population chose to abandon their Catholic identity and advocated its assimilation into the famous “melting pot.” Today, anti-Catholicism is much more subtle. Political candidates present a platform that is filled with euphemisms that obscure the anti-Catholicism.

Do you think the Catholic identity of Hispanics can make a contribution to American culture? If so, how?
More and more people are positively recognizing the cultural dimensions of the Hispanic presence in the United States. Family, community, work, sacrifice, solidarity: all are Catholic principles fully developed in the Hispanic tradition and the basis for building and developing a vision of the world. We are overwhelmingly a humanistic culture nourished by the Gospel and the Catholic tradition. To the American culture, we can contribute this humanism, our devotion to community, our love of life and sense of the beauty of creation. We can contribute to the American society our integral vision of the human person in all its dimensions and fullness. There are other ways we contribute to the American culture. For example, we are developing wealth–$650 billion dollars in purchasing power. This amount is greater than the combined Gross National Product of fifteen Spanish-speaking countries. We add new flavor to the culture with our cuisine, music, fashion, art, poetry, drama, and literature. Anyone who has had the experience of touring California, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida will recognize the cultural influences that have been in existence in these areas since before the establishment of the United States.