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Friday, May 27, 2022

The Growth Potential of the American National Catholic Church Among Hispanics

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As I have been becoming more familiar with the officiant market where I live, in preparation to 'hang out my shingle' as a Humanist celebrant, the term 'Contemporary Catholicism' has come up a few times in search results. Looking into it I have found that this is used in reference to priests who are not in communion with the pope, but rather part of independent Catholic bodies. Such priests are able to offer their services to a wider range of people, including the divorced and lgbtq couples, and with more flexibility as to style. As usual, one thing led to another, and I found myself discovering an independent Catholic denomination that was organized in New Jersey just 13 years ago. The American National Catholic Church (ANCC) is certainly 'contemporary,' and I think it stands a chance of making progress among Hispanic Americans. 

Almost two years ago I blogged a few times about how some Protestant denominations have taken on Latino Catholic characteristics in order to serve that community. I went into research for those posts with a fair amount of skepticism, as at first blush it looked to me like some deceptive practices were at work. For instance, Our Lady of Guadalupe, revered in Mexico as that nation's patron saint, features prominently in such Protestant parishes. In writing about the 'Evangelical Catholicism' of Lutheran Hispanic outreach, the approach of the Episcopal Church, and the life of a Lutheran & Presbyterian congregation that embraces Latin American Catholic traditions, I started to see it differently. While it's true that mainline denominations desperately need to succeed in Latino communities in order to survive, what I found wasn't simple bait-and-switch tactics. 

An ANCC parish certainly could pass as Roman Catholic, from what I have seen online, if it weren't for the occasional rainbow flags and women priests. The priests can also marry, but that might not be as visible to a visitor on a Sunday morning. The liturgy follows the 2nd edition of the Roman Missal, rather than the 3rd currently in use by Roman Catholic parishes in the United States. The more recent edition has not been well-received by all, as it appears clunky and even arcane in places.

For example, while I was growing up the priest would say to the congregation "the Lord be with you," to which the congregation would respond "and also with you." That's a nice, natural flow that became so ingrained that people my age who grew up Catholic find it hard not to respond to "the Force be with you" with "and also with you." However, this wasn't a close translation of the Latin text, which read "Dominus vobiscum" and "Et cum spiritu tuo." As a result of a commitment from the Vatican (at least at that time, under Pope Benedict) to a more rigid translation practice, people attending mass now respond to the priest with "and also with your spirit." If you attend an ANCC parish, though, you'll get the 2nd edition version. 
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An even more egregious (in my opinion) of divergence from the spirit of Vatican II, with its emphasis on getting closer to the people, is how the Nicene Creed has been 'updated' in English. When I was a kid it included the phrase "one in being with the Father." As I grew up that was perfectly clear for me to understand the notion of the trinity, and specifically how there are said to be three persons that are part of one being. Now, at a Roman Catholic mass, you will hear instead "consubstantial with the Father." This is wordsmithing and trying to score theological points at its worst, at the expense of comprehensibility. 

Okay, so what about Hispanics and the ANCC? I'm getting there!

This century has seen an enormous amount of scandal in Roman Catholicism, with revelations about vast numbers of people having been sexually assaulted as children by priests. For the most part these were covered up and the priests moved around, kept in service and able to rape more children. The church has sold off properties in order to fund settlements, closing parishes in the process. For many it has been too much. Some have left organized religion entirely, while others find their way to Protestant churches or Unitarian Universalism. For those with a devout Catholic faith, the next best option has been Episcopal or Lutheran churches, if they want something resembling the mass as they've known it. 

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, between 2007 and 2014, Catholicism nationwide saw a “greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S.” The report further states that 13 percent of all U.S. adults “are former Catholics,” a higher rate than any other religion. But the same report found that only 2 percent of U.S. adults are converts to Catholicism—that is, people who now identify as Catholic after being raised in another religion (or with no religion). — New Jersey Monthly

To me, the pedophile priests and coverups going back many decades, along with the Roman Catholic Church's stance against women's autonomy in reproductive health, and in opposition to the lgbtq community, all easily explain the draw to American National Catholicism. For Hispanics the appeal can be a little different. The Roman Catholic Church accepts divorced people at communion, so long as they aren't remarried or in a relationship with someone other than their ex. Except in the rare case of an annulment, divorced Catholics are expected to live a life of unpartnered celibacy. The ANCC, on the other hand, makes no such distinction, welcoming all to the Eucharist. While this non-judgmentalism can be attractive for a Catholic of any ethnicity, it is a more likely point of interest for Hispanics than either lgbtq or abortion issues. 

A 76-year-old Mexican Lutheran worshipper narrated: In the Catholic Church, I couldn’t receive the Lord’s Supper, and I was left with a trauma, because my mother-in-law [pause] she is divorced too. She was divorced, and when we went to church in Mexico, she couldn’t receive the Lord’s Supper. And I asked: Why? She couldn’t because she was divorced. So, she died in sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So, when I got here, I was left with that idea that I couldn’t receive the Lord’s Supper, but I went [to a Catholic Church], and I did receive it, and I felt with sin, because I said: apart from being divorced, I was receiving the Lord’s Supper without having the right to do so. So, that’s a double sin. [She pauses.] So when I came here [to the Lutheran Nazareth Church], the table of the Lord’s Supper was an Open Table, and I really liked that. That: “Come—no matter which denomination, the table of God is set, come!” They don’t put anything like: You are divorced. You can’t receive Lord’s Supper!” So, now I don’t feel guilty. I feel comfortable when I go and receive the Lord’s Supper, and I feel free. — 
How Our Lady of Guadalupe Became Lutheran

There are other issues, of course. 

Olga Odgers Ortiz sees international migration as a factor leading to religious change based on four main characteristics: 1) migrants’ conversion due to the exposure to a context of greater religious diversity, 2) migrants distancing themselves from traditional mechanisms of social control, 3) the vulnerability associated with the migratory condition, and 4) the process of redefining identity referents in the integration process into the destination society (2007:168-9). These are important reasons explaining why international migration leads to religious change— 

All of this adds up to being pretty positive for a group like the American National Catholic Church. They have a familiar style without the controlling aspects or exclusion. At the same time, I'm not the only person who has observed that progressive denominations that are more open-minded and affirming, with fewer rules, tend not to do as well long-term as conservative, rule-laden bodies. It remains to be seen whether the spiritual refugees received into Lutheran, Episcopalian, and independent Catholic organizations will successfully pass their faith down to the next generations.