BC Seal Boston College Magazine Winter 2001
current issue
Linden Lane
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
The new American Church.  Traditional and countercultural

photo of Roberto S. Goizueta


In a recent homily, Fr. Roger Landry of the diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, recounted how, as a boy, he first thought about the possibility of becoming a priest: "I was under-impressed with some of the priests I knew," he recalled. "I'd watch them celebrate Mass and, almost without any reverence whatsoever, drop the Body of the Lord onto the paten as if they were handling something of little value rather than the creator and savior of all. I remember saying to the Lord, 'Lord, please let me become a priest so I can treat you like you deserve.'"

During the last months, we Catholics have faced the heart-rending realization that, for many years and with shocking regularity, the Body of Christ has been abused and treated as if it were indeed something of little value. Not only the Body of Christ that is the Eucharist, but the Body of Christ that we Catholics believe is the Church. I want to underscore the central significance of children and the young—privileged members of the Body of Christ—as the most immediate victims of the present crisis. The Church's ability to faithfully make present the crucified and risen Lord today is directly related to our ability as a Church to affirm and defend the inviolable dignity of the children and young persons of our society. Not just our children but all children. Not just wanted children but unwanted children. Not just planned children but unplanned children. Not just well-dressed children but poor children. If it is true that as our holy father Pope John Paul II rightly insists, "The Church must bear witness to the inherent sacredness of all life," then the key litmus test for our success in doing so will be how we defend the dignity of those lives whose intrinsic value the larger society systematically denies.

The current crisis thus pierces to the very heart of the Body of Christ—where, against the wishes of his society and even his disciples, Christ himself placed the children, the poor, the infirm, the outcast. The Church must stand as a witness to a culture of life: a world view different from that of a consumerist culture that so often sacrifices the person to the commodity, attaching value solely on the basis of what people produce or consume. The priests who have abused our children and young people by treating them as mere objects of self-gratification and self-aggrandizement can count among their accomplices marketing gurus and media moguls who routinely and without a hint of objection from us, the Catholic consumers, turn the bodies of underage boys and girls into erotic objects to be used for marketing the latest fashions, music videos, or teen pop idols.

audience membersIndeed, a great tragedy of the current crisis is that the Church's prophetic stance on behalf of the most vulnerable, from the unborn to the elderly, has been grievously undermined, perhaps for generations to come. The most vulnerable include not only the children but also poor Catholic communities, which have historically been excluded from full participation in the life of the Church. Yet it is these marginalized groups that will constitute the Church of the 21st century, the Church which our children will inherit. As Mr. Woodward observed, the Catholic Church is the most culturally and racially diverse religious organization in the world. Though the Church is often perceived as a western European institution, most Catholics today live in the Third World, where one finds the fastest-growing segment of the global Catholic population. The American Catholic community itself is no longer predominantly of European heritage. By the year 2010, most U.S. Catholics will be Hispanic, and there are projections that by the year 2050 more than three-fourths of American Catholics will be Hispanic. We are indeed becoming a truly American Church.

The response of many Latino Catholics, particularly immigrant and poor Latinos, to the present crisis has been noticeably different from that of middle-class white Catholics. In June, a Los Angeles Times article highlighted this difference. "Since the scandal broke in January," the Times reported, the Latino community "has held rallies, marches, and vigils in support of the Church. . . . At the march several Latinos said they were saddened and disappointed by the scandals, but they did not voice anger. Gus Govea, a 39-year-old Mexican native and foreman at a Southgate floor mat firm, said . . . 'I don't follow the priests, I follow Jesus Christ.' Humberto Ramos, who served for 15 years in the archdiocesan Hispanic ministry, said rural Latino immigrants have long learned to maintain a religious life without priests. In some rural Mexican communities, he said, priests manage to visit and celebrate mass only three times a year—helping to produce a religious life based more on lay prayer gatherings and feast day celebrations."

In Latin America most Catholics only rarely have contact with a priest. Consequently their faith is usually centered not in a parish but in the home, where the religious leader is often the abuelita, or grandmother. Moreover, an important part of their experience of Church has been that of seeing priests and bishops place their own lives on the line to defend the poor against oppressive military regimes and economic elites. In figures like Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, or Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Latin Americans have seen the virtue of hierarchy, namely that a hierarchical structure lends the Church a public visibility and institutional presence that can facilitate the taking of a prophetic stance.

In the United States, many Latino Catholics have found in individual priests and bishops some of their most vocal advocates, both within the Church and in the larger society. The Church structure that so often marginalizes Hispanics, the structure that facilitates the coddling of criminals and the cover-up of sexual abuse, may be the same structure that facilitates the defense of poor immigrants when the vast majority of Americans, Catholic or otherwise, couldn't care less.

There is much that we can learn about our common faith, if we dare to truly become what in fact we are: the Body of Christ. I know numerous "fallen-away Catholics" who have returned to the Church with renewed enthusiasm after experiencing the Church in Central America or East Central Los Angeles or in Roxbury or Chelsea, Massachusetts—the very places that many of us try to avoid at all cost.

To Euro-American Catholics hungering for a faith that will move them and a community that will inspire them, Latino Catholics bring a deeply felt, vibrant faith, and, as Mr. Woodward noted, a more organic sense of Church. To lay Catholics, especially young lay Catholics seeking a deeper engagement, Latino Catholics bring a faith rooted in family and home. And to an American Catholic Church polarized between right and left, Latinos bring a Catholicism—at once traditional and countercultural—that just might help us past those polarizations.

In sum, to move beyond and learn from the present crisis, we American Catholics must open ourselves to aspects of the Body of Christ that we have instinctively feared and avoided, but which might be the places where we will discover a renewed faith and a renewed sense of hope. With Fr. Roger Landry of Fall River, we will discover once again that what many people deem to be of little value is in fact the creator and savior of all. And that, after all, is the message of the cross.

Roberto S. Goizueta is a professor of theology at Boston College and is the author of Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (1995).

Photos: Roberto S. Goizueta (top) and audience members. By Lee Pellegrini

Top of page


. . .
. » Flight Plan
  »  The once and future Church
. .
Terms of engagement
. .
An unsettled realm
. .
The challenge of sex
. .
Answering the call
. .
The new American Church
. .
  »  Gasson confidential

Special Section:
The Church in the 21st Century

. . .
  » The Church in the 21st Century
Alumni Home
BC Home

© Copyright 2002 The Trustees of Boston College