Sunday, April 20, 2008

Benedict And The Immigrant

While the press has given early and large play to Pope Benedict XVI's sense of shame and remorse over the sexual abuse scandals and his meeting with victims, another theme of some importance has been muted. Benedict has praised the American church for its past ministry to immigrants and the consequent diversity of the American church. He also has urged the American bishops, priests, deacons, church workers and leaders to renew efforts to be a welcoming place for the immigrant. Benedict hasn't directly addressed the issues of the current debate on the undocumented, but he has laid down principles -- specifically, respect for the human rights of immigrants and the need of policy that supports family unity. That was enough to turn on Tommy Tancredo, who denounced Benedict's advice. On the same day that the pope visited the president, however, ICE made raids on Pilgrim Pride's chicken plants. That struck some American bishops as insensitive and contradictory to the welcome Benedict deserved. (See NY Times article.)

The NY Times added to its report on Benedict's instruction to the bishops and Catholics generally to be a welcoming church that often it is not. Over a million immigrants, for the most part raised as Catholics, are being attracted to evangelical churches as the truly "welcoming". The article is accurate enough. The American Catholic Church could try harder to be devise ways to be more welcoming. But as an historian, I think the issue is more complex. The real religious danger to the immigrant is more from a benign secularization. The same dynamic is working in the wider Catholic population. A recent Pew study on religious practice has shown that millions raised as Catholic have drifted away. Some to the evangelical mega churches -- like Tommy Tancredo; more into indifference -- thankful perhaps for the values of their upbring, but not too strict about the implications. There probably is a similar dynamic working among the evangelicals -- Latino or gringo. That shouldn't surprise us. What gave life and authority to main line Protestant denominations in the 19th century was evangelical enthusiasm. Now these denomination suffer along with Catholics as members cool in ardor, are better educated, aware of alternatives and so drift elsewhere. This is not an invitation to complacency, but rather to understanding. The issue for both Latino and Americans is how to make our old diversity, which Benedict recognized as our strength, new, so that American church indeed become a bridge for immigrants in passage to a new reality.

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