Another sign of hope is the increased Catholic migration to the U.S. This is particularly true among Latinos. In 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Latinos totaled a record 44.3 million, making this group the nation's number one minority group for the first time in U.S. history. Estimates are that Latinos will account for 60 percent of the U.S. population growth between 2005 and 2050. Should present trends continue, it is estimated that Hispanics will approach 29 percent of the total U.S. population by 2050 -- a time when the Census Bureau estimates that whites will be the nation's new minority.

Not all Hispanics are Catholics, of course. But the influx of Catholic Hispanic migrants has caused the U.S. Catholic Church to adapt to a future where white ethnics (e.g., Irish, Italian, Poles) are a minority of those sitting in the pews. Priests are learning Spanish, and more churches than ever before are offering Spanish masses. These, too, are signs of an institution willing to adapt to the pastoral needs of its new congregants.

The future of the U.S. Catholic Church is not assured. The number of ordained priests must increase. And much will depend on how these new priests pastor to their congregants. The battles between Orthodox Catholics and Cafeteria Catholics will either intensify or diminish -- depending on whether the sides can find common ground, or whether the issues that enervated the disagreements in the first place no longer have merit. Certainly, the influx of Catholic immigrants gives the Church a new vitality that cannot be taken for granted (witness the rise of Hispanic evangelicals). Yet there is more light than darkness, more hope than pessimism, that the U.S. Catholic Church will adapt to a new century and, once again, attract new congregants to the diminished numbers sitting in the pews.


John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and is the author of Barack Obama's America:  How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era published by the University of Michigan Press.