Future of Catholicism
The Catholic Church in American Politics: A Look Ahead
This is a good thing for the American Church, because it will inevitably become less Anglo and more Latino in the decades to come. In many ways, this demographic transformation within American Catholicism will take the Church in this country back to its roots. For most of American history, the Catholic Church was an immigrant Church; its adherents were disproportionately new arrivals and their children. These Catholics were often socially marginalized, and tended to be less educated and less affluent than other Americans. Beginning in the 1960s, however, the American Church started to lose this immigrant character. The descendants of those immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Italy, and elsewhere were going to college, moving to the suburbs, and entering the American social and economic mainstream. By the end of the 20th century, American Catholic congregations were dramatically wealthier, better educated, and more in the American mainstream than they had been fifty years before.
The influx of Hispanic Catholics and the growing secularism of European-Americans will necessarily bring some of the immigrant flavor back to the Catholic Church in this country. This, in turn, will inevitably affect the Church's engagement with politics. Advocacy for the poor, the ostracized, and the socially marginal will no longer be simply an abstract concern rooted in Christian charity; it will be a response to the lived experience of many in the pews.
This not at all to say that such advocacy will or should displace the Church's concern with life and family issues; indeed, as discussed above, the growing Latino congregations seem more receptive to the Church's counsel on these scores than do their Anglo co-religionists. In order to resonate with this part of the flock, however, the Church will need to amplify and make more concrete its advocacy for a social safety net and for a humane immigration policy. In doing so, the American Catholic Church will simultaneously be more in step with the views of this growing contingent of the faithful and truer to the comprehensive nature of its Christian calling. This is a combination that should be welcomed by Catholics of all stripes.
J. Matthew Wilson is associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of public opinion, elections, religion and politics, and political psychology. He has published articles in a variety of professional journals, including The American Journal of Political Science and The Journal of Politics. He is the editor of From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the American Religious Mosaic and is currently at work on two book projects -- one on the political behavior of American Catholics and another, entitled The Blame Game: Political Sophistication and Causal Attribution in American Politics, dealing with how citizens decide who to hold accountable for social and political outcomes.