Is America Just a Protestant Botch?


This essay is part of today’s symposium of lay Catholic opinion on immigration. For other contributions see this piece by Mark and Louise Zwick, this one by John Zmirak, and this news report from Zenit. For Deal Hudson’s view, see this article in The American Spectator.

In the nineteenth century, German Catholics came to America by the millions, with surges following the revolutionary unrest of 1848 and the unification of Germany in 1871 that brought on Bismarck’s persecution of Catholics during the Kulturkampf. With them came heroic religious orders and devout laymen like those who founded Der Wanderer, a Catholic weekly in Saint Paul, Minnesota that was published in German into the 1950s (and was banned by Hitler, who stopped its distribution to thousands of Germans in the 1930s).

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For decades, those German-American Catholics refused to give up their language. In his massive study of American identity, Who Are We, the late Harvard historian Samuel P. Huntington writes that for years, “[a]mong the original British settlers antagonism existed towards [the newly-arrived] German-Americans, focused largely on the efforts of the latter to continue to use their language in churches and schools and other public institutions and events.” By the end of the nineteenth century, James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore and Primate of the Catholic Church in America, confronted the issue and insisted that the German-Americans use no German in homilies.

The German-Americans appealed to Rome, claiming discrimination. They also demanded their own German-speaking bishops. Gibbons countered that their position would invite the charge that “the Catholic Church … exists in America as a foreign institution, and that she is, consequently, a menace to the existence of the nation…. The Germans are shining examples of industry, energy, love of home, conservatism, and attachment to their religion,” Gibbons conceded, but he insisted that they assimilate nonetheless. When the Vatican supported him, the patriotic Gibbons proudly informed President Benjamin Harrison of his triumph. Harrison responded warmly, writing that “Of all men, the Bishops of the Church should be in full harmony with the political institutions and sentiments of the country.”

Well, times have changed—changed utterly. Several prominent Catholic prelates at a conference in Napa, California, last summer, limned their vision of “The Next America,” taking for granted that the old America was… over. Their comments focused on immigration: Cardinal Roger Mahony, the recently retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, reviewed various passages from Scripture and Catholic teaching to advocate amnesty for illegal aliens. Cardinal Mahony has made amnesty his principal political goal for years, to the point that, when he was asked about abortion and health care in 2009, he replied, “This is way beyond my field. My field is immigration.” When Obamacare finally passed in March 2010 (still including abortion) the Cardinal was ecstatic. “Now that a health care bill will help millions of uninsured people receive affordable medical care,” he rejoiced, “it’s time for the government to address the millions of people who are living in the shadows because they lack legal immigration status.”

Cardinal Mahony’s successor at the Napa conference joined him in supporting amnesty, but, curiously, he did so by attacking Huntington’s book. “[Huntington] made a lot of sophisticated-sounding arguments, but his basic argument was that American identity and culture are threatened by Mexican immigration,” the prelate charged. He continued, “[a]uthentic American identity ‘was the product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers of America in the 17th and 18th centuries,’ according to Huntington. By contrast, Mexicans’ values are rooted in a fundamentally incompatible ‘culture of Catholicism’ which, Huntington argued, does not value self-initiative or the work ethic, and instead encourages passivity and an acceptance of poverty. These are old and familiar nativist claims, and they are easy to discredit,” he claimed.

Not easy to discredit, perhaps, but easy to ignore. Unfortunately, the prelate’s caricature of Huntington falls so far from the mark that one hopes his remarks were based, perhaps, on an unfavorable review somewhere. In fact, Huntington’s focus—masterfully presented and exhaustively researched—is not the “Culture of Catholicism” but rather of a single country, Mexico. It is this culture that the overwhelming majority of Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, bring with them across the border into the United States. The character of that culture is so important because of the profound reality that Mahony’s successor—an American citizen born in Monterrey, Mexico—delicately avoids: Mexicans in America will not assimilate, and, this time around, America’s Catholic bishops don’t care.

Not only does the attack on Huntington bash a straw man which is “easy to discredit”; it then conjures up an idealized image of Mexican immigrants. Mexican immigrants “will bring a new, youthful, entrepreneurial spirit of hard work to our economy,” the archbishop says. They “are not afraid of hard work or sacrifice [and] the vast majority of them believe in Jesus Christ and love our Catholic Church. They share traditional American values of faith, family and community.”

A brief particular of interest to the faithful: recent in-depth studies by the Pew Charitable Trust indicate that, contrary to the situation decades ago, many Hispanic immigrants today are in fact Protestant or evangelical; moreover, the longer a Catholic Hispanic is in the U.S., the more likely it is that he will leave the Church. More than 80% of Latino evangelicals in the U.S. are former Catholics.

The issue has nothing to do with the personal character of the immigrants: Cardinal Gibbons thought the Germans were fine people, too. They “are shining examples of industry, energy, love of home, conservatism, and attachment to their religion,” he warmly observed, but for the common good of the new country they chose to enter, they must assimilate to it.

And the Germans did. How about the Mexicans? Has any American bishop followed Cardinal Gibbons’ lead, and insisted that Mexicans in America speak English at Mass? That Hispanic Masses be celebrated only in English (or better, Latin), and that all homilies and formation be conducted in English? Quite the contrary. Most bishops are probably looking for more Spanish-speaking priests, just as our own parish has. Today, it is America that is expected to assimilate to its immigrants.

Gibbons cherished America; but some current bishops have their doubts, and with good reason: “Our culture is changing,” the Napa speech says. “We have a legal structure that allows, and even pays for, the killing of babies in the womb. Our courts and legislatures are redefining the natural institutions of marriage and the family. We have an elite culture … that is openly hostile to religious faith.”

All too true. So what is to blame for this travesty? Pope Benedict XVI credits the “Dictatorship of Relativism” that infects the secular societies of the West. Undoubtedly, the American Church’s abandonment of Humanae Vitae has played a central role. The new archbishop, however, aims his arrows at other targets. For him, the culprit is Old America, specifically “the idea that Americans are descended from only white Europeans and that our culture is based only on the individualism, work ethic and rule of law that we inherited from our Anglo-Protestant forebears.” Our national heritage somehow encourages “a wrong-headed notion that ‘real Americans’ are of some particular race, class, religion or ethnic background,” he insists. It smacks of “nativism” and “bigotry.”

Perhaps the prelate’s argument is not with Huntington, but with Tocqueville. He does not hesitate to tell audiences of wealthy Catholics that critics of illegal immigration are “angry and frustrated,” and their views are “not worthy of the Gospel.” However, his animus pales when compared to that of his brother bishops back home. Last week, an editorial in Desde La Fe, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City, lambasted what it called “the arrogant, xenophobic, and racist attitude of the United States.” Of course, this is the same propaganda line that the Mexican corruptos in government, business, and culture have expounded for years—blaming the gringos, and not the criminal cronyism and corruption of Mexico’s elites, for Mexico’s dysfunctional poverty. Alas, when the victims of that propaganda cross the border into the U.S., no bishop greets them to disabuse them of that deep-seated anti-American resentment (or typically, even to catechize them). In Mexico, they had to game the system to survive. In the U.S., they discover that our comparatively extravagant welfare system is a sitting duck, virtually inviting manipulation. Yet they rarely hear the voice of the Church tell them, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Instead, last Monday, the Archbishop of Los Angeles and 32 other Hispanic Bishops in the United States published a letter addressed to “unauthorized” immigrants. In their letter, our beloved shepherds apologize for those Americans who “disdain” illegals, lamenting that many of those who disagree with them are “sowing hatred” instead of supporting amnesty. And what callous souls could possibly disagree with the personal political views of their bishops? “Many of our Catholic brothers and sisters,” that’s who. It’s breathtaking, really: America’s Hispanic bishops have apparently joined their Mexican brothers and declared war on the hating, xenophobic, hard-hearted “Old America,” many Catholics included.

It is worth noting that the Hispanic bishops’ letter condemns anti-amnesty Catholics in language more scathing than our bishops have ever used to condemn pro-abortion “Catholic” politicians who flagrantly perpetuate a grave public scandal by continuing to receive the Eucharist while brazenly championing “abortion rights.” Of course, abortion is an objective evil, a heinous moral crime that all Catholics must condemn, while immigration is an issue on which good Catholics can and do disagree. I wonder, have America’s Hispanic bishops ever published a joint pastoral letter using similarly strong language condemning abortionists and the “Catholic” politicians who enable them? I hope so. After all, Hispanic and black children are in the bull’s eye for those who exterminate the unborn: proportionally they are killed in much larger numbers than are children of other races.

Nonetheless,  the charge leveled at Americans by the Mexico City Archdiocese is refreshing for its candor: Mexican bishops say outright what American bishops and their USCCB staff have darkly intimated for years. In July 2008, Cardinal Mahony blatantly charged that opponents of amnesty are immoral. He told an immigration rally that enforcement of current law was “fanning the flames of intolerance, xenophobia and, at times, bigotry.” His brother bishops usually tend to use a slightly lighter touch.

But Cardinal Mahony is certainly not alone. In their 1979 “Pastoral Letter On Racism,” his brother bishops blamed the evil of racism not on the human heart but on “racial injustices in society and its own structures.” So it is structures, not hearts, that must be changed. In the meantime, we all must be racists if we’re not revolutionaries. Such intoxicating Marxism has pervaded the “social justice” movement in Catholic circles for decades. It might help to explain why our bishops today appear to be so helpless in confronting the blatantly anti-Catholic culture war being waged by the Obama Administration.

Speaking of racism, I can find no record of Cardinal Mahony, his successor, or any other bishop condemning the blatant racism of their pro-amnesty allies like La Raza—“The Race”—a virulent agitation machine that is very powerful right there in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. One wonders, does self-serving moral posturing with such allies serve the Church’s mission to “go and teach all nations” —or does it pervert it?

Robert Royal, who has written on immigration for years and whose wife is an immigrant, notes that

in simple terms, since the beginning of the new millennium alone, about 3.6 percent of 312,596,746 Americans are new arrivals. Almost one in every twenty-five people. And that’s not counting another million plus in 2011 and tens of millions before 2000…. This picture hardly squares with the usual complaints including those from people in the Church, that Americans are xenophobic and do not welcome the ‘stranger and the alien’ among us (cf., Leviticus 19:33-34). Indeed, such Biblical moralizing has been, I believe, a hindrance, more than a help, in the debate about illegal immigration, because most Americans resent such patent untruth.

Let’s get beyond the slander and back to the issue at hand: assimilation. The attack on Huntington said, a tad defensively, “One could point to the glorious legacy of Hispanic literature and art, or to Mexican-Americans’ and Hispanic-Americans’ accomplishments in business, government, medicine and other areas.” It said not a word about the culture of civic corruption that Mexicans have endured for over a century. Nor does it mention, even as serious problems for possible consideration, the murders of a Catholic Cardinal, a major presidential candidate, numerous mayors, prosecutors, and thousands of innocents, reflecting what can only be called a culture of violence. As Thomas Sowell recently observed, “When you import people, you import cultures.” Given that Cardinal Mahony, his successor, and their brother bishops will not encourage Mexicans to assimilate, it’s only fair to ask, what culture are they importing?

Aristotle recognized and underscored the importance of good habits to social survival and prosperity. He gave these habits names: virtues. He delineated certain virtues required of a polis, virtues known to us all, because they have remained virtually unchanged for the past two millennia. The prelate at Napa insisted that Mexicans “share traditional American values of faith, family and community,” and Newt Gingrich agrees. At the recent GOP presidential debate, Gingrich thought it unwise to deport many illegals if “they’ve been law-abiding citizens for 25 years.”

But whose laws have they been obeying? As a volunteer translator for law enforcement here in the Shenandoah Valley, I constantly encounter “law-abiding” immigrants, many of whom have been here for years, who routinely use false identification, multiple aliases, false or borrowed Social Security numbers (a federal felony), and who pay “coyotes” regularly when they come back into the U.S. illegally after returning to Mexico for a visit. “Tell ’em to get their hands out of their pockets,” the sheriff wants me to tell such people, fearful that they are reaching for a weapon. No, I tell him, they are reaching for their wallet, because back in their home country every man in uniform they have ever encountered expected a bribe. Yet our police rarely arrest these immigrant felons: “They’ll just let’em go at ICE,” they complain.

I have never heard a bishop admonish Hispanics to leave behind the corrupt and violent habits that they were forced to adopt in order to survive in their home country. Why is every decent house in Mexico surrounded by a wall topped off with broken glass and barbed wire? Why has Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa decided, for the first time in Los Angeles history, to build a wall around the mayor’s mansion? Why do illegals in the U.S. complain that they have to send back money not only to their relatives, but to the mayor, the police chief, and the local gang leader so their families will not be assaulted or plundered in their absence?

And why does Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the proto-Communist candidate in Mexico’s presidential next year, come to Chicago to deliver a campaign speech before an auditorium packed with Newt Gingrich’s “law-abiding citizens”? Why? Because they still consider themselves to be citizens of Mexico, not the United States. The laws and social mores they are abiding by are Mexican ones, not ours. And the Mexican government encourages them to participate in Mexican elections by contacting their nearby Mexican consulates that are conveniently located throughout the United States. Why? Because these folks send back some $80-$100 billion a year to their extended families in Mexico.

Univision, a Spanish-language television network headquartered in New York City, owns dozens of broadcast stations alongside its cable and satellite operations. Their programming perpetuates the cultural connection of Mexicans with Mexico. Intermingled with its numerous entertainment shows saturated with sex are newscasts that depict the U.S. as a foreign country in which its millions of Mexican viewers just happen to live. When it covers non-Hispanics at all, it depicts them as “the arrogant, xenophobic, and racist” Americans that the Mexican elites and the Mexican Church have warned them about all their lives. Assimilate? Are you kidding? After such a drenching indoctrination, why on earth would they wish to?

The Catholic Church in the United States undoubtedly has a Hispanic future. Surveys indicate that a majority of today’s Catholic population in America under the age of thirty are Hispanic. Perhaps the bishops are simply acquiescing to what they perceive as inevitable. Moreover, the Dictatorship of Relativism and the collapse of the family have played a role, bringing our culture to the brink of collapse—or perhaps beyond the brink. Ask your pastor how many marriages your parish has performed, compared to ten or twenty years ago. The Napa bishops can certainly find plenty about today’s America that doesn’t measure up to Tocqueville. Imagine a president – or any politician, for that matter – who would echo John Adams, in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush:

The Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that was ever conceived upon the earth. It is the most Republican book in the world, and therefore I will still revere it. The curses against fornication and adultery, and the prohibition of fornication or libidinous ogle at a woman, I believe to be the only system that did or ever will preserve a Republic in the world.

Clearly our beloved country has fallen on hard times, and no race or ethnic group has been spared. But even in the midst of such difficulties, there is merit in honestly discussing the question that Huntington asks at the beginning of Who Are We:

The massive Hispanic immigration after 1965 make America increasingly bifurcated in terms of language (English and Spanish) and culture (Anglo and Hispanic), which could supplement or supplant the black—white racial bifurcation as the important division in American society. Substantial parts of America, primarily in southern Florida and the Southwest, would be primarily Hispanic and culture and language, while both cultures and languages would coexist in the rest of America. America, in short, would lose its cultural and linguistic unity and become a bilingual, bicultural society like Canada, Switzerland, or Belgium.

Is this “Next America” inevitable? Are there alternatives? Can Catholics disagree with the views of the Napa bishops without getting called ugly, destructive names? Can anybody?

Only time will tell. But until recently, under the leadership of USCCB President Archbishop Timothy Dolan, our bishops have seldom reminded  us that their political views are their own – that good Catholics can and do differ on the application of Catholic precepts on specific legislative issues; in fact, that the Church calls on the laity to lead on practical legislative issues like immigration and federal spending. The Hispanic bishops’ letter to illegal aliens starkly reflects the sad politicization of some segments of the hierarchy, where favorite private political agendas like the welfare state and amnesty have in some cases virtually crowded out the Magisterium altogether. Perhaps we should pray that our bishops will bring eternal and objective truths like those in Humanae Vitae “out of the shadows,” and let the laity, not the hierarchy, deal with practical legislative particulars that Holy Mother Church calls us to address, in charity and in truth, to pursue the common good for all.


  • Christopher Manion

    Christopher Manion served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College, and is the director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum Foundation. He is a Knight of Malta.

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