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Author finds Hispanic religiosity firmly rooted


By Eduardo C. Fernández
The Litugical Press, 206 pages, paper, $19.95


Sociologists identify two important trends in the Hispanic community in the United States. Hispanics are leaving the Catholic church in significant numbers. At the same time, immigration and high reproductive rates are increasing the total number of Hispanics so rapidly that it is estimated that as soon as 10 years from now they will constitute an absolute majority of all U.S. Catholics. As the U.S. church has passed through phases in which Germans, Irish and Italians predominated and gave it specific characteristics, we can expect a predominantly Hispanic church before long.

The emergence of a Hispanic majority, however, will take place in a context significantly different from that of its predecessors. For several centuries up to the Second Vatican Council we had a unified theological culture. The science was not only almost exclusively clerical but envisaged as absolutely objective. Students in Asia and Africa studied the same texts as those in France or the United States.

Since the council, however, theologizing has been democratized, with women and laymen on a par with clerics. Theologians see themselves less as a support of the institution than as “midwives to the community.” Everywhere, also, there is a trend to contextualization. The content and method of today’s theologians reflect the great diversity of cultures that provides the context for evangelization.

Fernández examines the writings of eight Catholic and six Protestant Hispanic men and women theologians who are all in the post-Vatican II mode of contextual theology. Popular religiosity is prominent in their writings, with some of them describing it as a primary indicator of the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful) and one of the least invaded manifestations of Hispanic culture.

All these U.S. theologians have been influenced by Latin America’s liberation theology. Their emphasis, however, is somewhat different. While they take its method seriously, they are not mere imitators. Latin Americans have stressed a praxis approach, one committed to social change. For most Hispanics it is more important to focus on an anthropological perspective, that is to say, one starting from where the faith actually exists -- in the center of peoples’ lives. The first priority of their people, as they see it, is to maintain their identity in a Catholic culture that seeks to absorb them.

Fernández also emphasizes “a radical difference in perception and comportment” in the Hispanic, as compared with other North Americans. Latin American philosophy stresses the aesthetic more than the Cartesian, as Latin American religion emphasizes the affective more than the rational. This emphasis on aesthetics, especially as manifested in popular religion and in Latino culture in general, he finds in such theologians as Roberto Goizueta, Virgilio Elizondo, Orlando Espín, Ada María Isazi-Díaz and Yolando Tarango.

The obvious corollary is that popular religiosity is not something to be discouraged, as has frequently been done by the church in the United States, but rather developed as an ideal base for a church that is meaningful to Hispanics and that takes as a given that God is already working in people’s lives. This would be a church less clerical than the existing U.S. church, one in which the domestic shrine -- as in ancient Rome and modern Japan -- plays a major role.

The distinctive contribution of Hispanic women theologians is fully presented. Led by Isazi-Díaz and Maria Pilar Aquino, they combine cultural, feminist and liberation aspects. Their mujerista theology differs from U.S. feminist theology in that it stresses not only the oppression in our society of woman as woman, but the further oppression of being a woman in one of the poorest minority groups in the United States. In addition, its starting point is different. Whereas mainline feminist theology has as its subject modern humankind drowning in pessimism, the subject of mujerista theology is the oppressed woman steeped in hope.

The six Protestants whose work is described in La Cosecha (the harvest) emerge as very similar in their theology to their Catholic counterparts. The most prominent is Justo L. González, author of more than 40 books published in several languages. As a mark of the cordial relations between the two groups, Gonzalez has received the Vergilio Elizondo Award of the Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States. Two of the Protestant theologians, Eldin Villafañe and Samuel Solivan, are Pentecostals. They explain the rapid growth of Pentecostalism as a result of “both Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy’s partnership with the dominant culture, and their propensity to uphold at all costs the status quo.” The preferential option for the poor dominates the Pentacostalists theological thinking.

I learned more from this book than I had anticipated. I recommend it heartily to all who are concerned for the future of Catholicism in the United States.

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000