Latino Catholicism by Timothy Matovina

Latino Catholicism by Timothy Matovina

Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church by Timothy Matovina

Princeton University Press, 328 pages, 2012, $29.95, ISBN 9781400839735[1]


Latino Catholicism remaps Roman Catholicism in the United States.[2] Matovina asks his readers to consider transnational América as more than a temporary overlay to the more standard, nationalistic approach to “America the Beautiful.” Matovina has made an enormous contribution to this process even prior to the publication of Latino Catholicism. His pioneering study from 1995 of Tejano Religion and Ethnicity in 19th century San Antonio paved the way for an abundance of future projects.[3] These include a distinctively balanced and informative account of the origins of the Guadalupan event, works with and about the founding father of Latino/a theology, Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, and new insights on Mexican-American Catholicism, Latino/as and American public life, and the liturgical foundations of the Latino/a presence.[4]

As a people of faith, we Latino Catholics have forged our own distinct form of theology. The analysis in this review concentrates on three of the more salient religious dimensions to Matovina’s exploration of Latino Catholicism. In each case, we see that Matovina’s narrative helps to untangle the role that culture and society plays in the formation of the religious worldview and vice versa. First, I examine the question of identity and the role that religion plays in the formation of it. Second I look at the specific role of the liturgy in the formation of identity. In the third and last section, I consider Matovina’s presentation of the development of a Latino/a public Catholicism.



I have long been focused on the problem of Latino/a identity as a problem not only for Latinos and Latinas but as a problem for theologians and members of the Church.[5] I don’t mean that we Latino/a theologians are in a crisis about our Latino/a identity. That is not the real problem. I think rather that there is a certain ambivalence that remains in the culture in spite of our best efforts to promote Latino/a Catholic theology as an academic and ecclesial effort. That ambivalence can take two forms. On the one hand, some assume that the advent of Latino/a theology is designed as a colorful branch of the multicultural Church, one that takes the politics of identity of Latinos and Latinas as its main point of departure and argues for that agenda utilizing the resources of Catholic thought.[6] This perception is unfounded since Latino/a theology has never worked out of a framework that supports either a “multicultural Church” or a “politics of identity.” The second cause of the ambivalence has to do with the perception—and here there is a lot of material in Matovina’s book to support the validity of the claim—that Latino/a Catholicism is not assimilating to U.S. culture in the manner of the Catholic immigrants from Western Europe. For certain proponents of a new evangelization within Catholicism, Latino/as seem like anything but multiculturalists. They appear to be the perfect weapon for engaging a culture war against the secular drift of life in the United States.

Who are the real Latino/a Catholics? Both and neither, I would say. In both cases there is a failure of the imagination and a lack of attentiveness to the lived experience on the ground. Many Latino/as are social progressives, and others are also fighting the culture war against secularism. The former reduces the whole of the experience of faith to a very narrow political agenda. The latter does more or less the same thing even though the aim is to focus on a spiritual message that predates the recent culture wars by four centuries. I for one am a Latino who thinks that both struggles need engagement. But the true identity of Latino/a Catholicism is not served well by either of these paradigms, at least when taken by themselves. Latino fusion makes for an interesting menu, but Catholicism by its nature is not supposed to be just à la carte. If there is a prejudice against Latino/as within and outside of Catholicism, it is not just that they are brown. The deeper prejudice that one encounters is that they are not conforming to mainstream patterns of assimilation, even when one concedes that the mainstream has already forked into two (or perhaps more branches).

Matovina’s portrait is generous and ample. The standard prejudices are avoided, and many nuances are presently lucidly for the first time. My criticisms are very slight. I myself might have added a study of remittances to the second chapter since the rate of sending even after the recent decline is unlike anything that could have taken place during the earlier waves of European migration.[7] The comprehensive picture of cultural adaptation in Latino Catholicism is still largely accurate. In Matovina’s words: “To understand the Hispanic presence in US Catholicism, one must comprehend that the future possibilities are not the dichotomous options between assimilation and cultural retention but a comingling of both realities that will persist much longer than it did for European immigrant groups, even as US and Latino cultures are continuously refashioned amid the dynamism of a globalized world.”[8]

Matovina brings in a new angle for considering the religious formation of Latino Catholics. His emphasis in chapter four on apostolic movements such as Cursillos de Cristiandad or Catholic Charismatic Renewal as the primary engines of Latino/a evangelization proves that this re-fashioning of identity requires new methods of carrying forward the gospel. These new methods grow out of the anthropology of nosotros (“we”) that lies at the heart of Latino/a Catholicism and by the same token stands as a counter-cultural challenge to the Benjamin Franklin-style individualistic strand of U.S. society and civil religion.[9]


Fiesta: Worship and Devotion

The Catholic liturgy is not supposed to be a refueling station. It deals with the formation of the human person at the most basic level. In his 1933 work Liturgy and Personality, the Catholic thinker Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote:

Values are not only like a dew falling from heaven, but also like incense rising to God; each value, in itself, addresses to God a specific word of glorification. A being, in praising God, praises Him through its value, through that inner preciousness which marks it as having been drawn out of the indifferent. Nature praises God.... This is true of every work of art, every perfect community, every truth, every moral attitude. [A human being]…must first of all respond adequately to each value as a reflection of God; he [or she] must respond with joy, enthusiasm, veneration, love—and lovingly adore God, Who is the fullness of all value.[10]

The value of the liturgy thus goes far deeper than any puritanically conceived or individualistically appropriated moral value. Hispanic Catholics are a particularly lively embodiment of the existential embodiment of a liturgical personality described by von Hildebrand. The Pew Center lumped all Latinos under the unhelpful umbrella of “charismatic” worshippers.[11] By contrast, Matovina offers a more finely grained evaluation in his chapter on “Worship and Devotion” by looking at popular practices, the highly underfunded but still supportive organizational structures (e.g., Instituto Nacional de Liturgia Hispana), and the new ways of thinking about Latino participation in the liturgy by theologians such as Juan Sosa, Mark Francis, C.S.V., Jorge Presmanes, O.P., Kenneth G. Davis, O.F.M., Conv., James Empereur, S.J., Eduardo Fernández, S.J., and Raúl Gómez, S.D.S..

The main theological issue here concerns the relationship between liturgy and popular piety. This is not a new problem in Catholicism but one that involves a constant tug of war between the theologians whose point of departure is that of popular Catholicism and those liturgists who prefer a more rational expression of faith. There is much that could be said here about the underlying questions. I think that the Latin American bishops have given us something to consider. In conclusion #464 of the 1979 Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) meeting at Puebla, the bishops of Latin America urged:

Favoring the cross-fertilization between liturgy and popular piety in such a way as intelligently and prudently to channel the yearnings for prayer and charismatic vitality that can be found today in our countries. On the other hand, the religion of the people with its symbolic and expressive richness can lend to the liturgy a potent dynamism. This largely unnoticed dynamism can incarnate more and better the universal prayer of the Church in our culture. (Favorecer la mutua fecundación entre Liturgia y piedad popular que pueda encauzar con lucidez y prudencia los anhelos de oración y vitalidad carismática que hoy se comprueba en nuestros países. Por otra parte, la religión del pueblo, con su gran riqueza simbólica y expresiva, puede proporcionar a la liturgia un dinamismo creador. éste, debidamente discernido, puede servir para encarnar más y mejor la oración universal de la Iglesia en nuestra cultura.)

This cross-fertilization spills over into the public realm, as we see in the story Matovina relates about El Via Crucis del Inmigrante in New York or the insightful account of the role of women in Pilsen’s Via Crucis by anthropologist Karen Mary Davalos.[12] Here in Chicago there are many such events during Holy Week and throughout the year.[13] I take my students to these places and ask them to reflect upon the significance of being an observer in the midst of such a public display of faith. Elaine A. Peña’s 2011 book Performing Piety: Making Sacred Space with the Virgin of Guadalupe includes, to my knowledge, the first critical analysis of what is reputed to be the largest annual religious event in the United States, namely, the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Shrine of Des Plaines, IL.[14] According to unofficial reports, 200,000 faithful gather there for three days every year to celebrate the feast.[15]


Public Catholicism

In 2010 at the time of the midterm elections different religious leaders with an interest in public life were asked by the blog “The Immanent Frame” about the role of religious discourse in forming public opinion. Ernesto Cortes, a co-Director of the Industrial Arts Foundation and one of the Latino heroes of Matovina’s narrative on “Public Catholicism,” had this response:

During times of trouble, it is critical to understand that people ask hard questions. They can get anxious. They become more thoughtful and reflective about their life conditions. And amongst the most worrisome effects of people suffering anxiety and fear is the regeneration and resurgence of nativism. That makes me very, very nervous. People who are discouraged and not powerful become frightened of those in power. We see this in Arizona and Texas and the rise of nativism against immigrants there. When times get tough, it’s not at all surprising that nativism enjoys a resurgence.

I am shocked and angered by how disconnected the political elites of both parties have been from the difficulties people have been experiencing for a long time now. These elites did not recognize how deep the crisis is for people. There is a shock amongst political elites that the suffering of people is so deep and has been going on for so long. It tells me how disconnected these elites are from how difficult it is for people to pay their bills, to get food on the table, to stay in their homes. What is painful to me is that these elites—again of both parties—are only now coming to understand that. The IAF has been working hard for a long time now to engage folks about civic life, to teach people about why and how structural and cultural changes are taking place. Clearly we have all got to do a lot more organizing![16]

Ernesto Cortes’ influential role in the formation of COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) fused the organizing techniques of Saul Alinsky that Cortes learned in Chicago with the inherently public Catholicism of Mexican American parishes of San Antonio. The quote just cited is thus interesting for a number of reasons. First, it puts the new nativism in the context not only of an economic downturn but of a recurrent theme in the historic struggle of U.S. Catholics in general and of Chicanos in particular. Second, the fusion of Cortes and other Latino/as raises the question of whether vibrant parishes can indeed aid in the process of teaching the faithful “why and how structural and cultural changes are taking place.” There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that the political parties are not giving Catholics good lessons in this regard. John Francis Burke in his 2003 book Mestizo Democracy: The Politics of Crossing Borders takes this proposal one step further by arguing that the synergy of liturgy and faith formation in Latino/a Catholicism makes “Madison go Mesoamerican.”[17] Whether or not these proposals of Matovina and Burke constitute the basis for a distinctively Latino/a form of public theology is a question that still remains to be addressed. Matovina deserves much credit for putting this challenging question on the table. It is not just a question for academics. In fact, no convincing answer to the question will ever be found unless we seek out and find organic intellectuals like Cortes who are building bridges between networks of activists and committed channels of theoretical production like Latino/a theology.[18]



Matovina’s re-mapping is an invaluable guide to the present and future of the Catholic Church in the U.S., daily economic, social, and political life in our cities, and a wide array of issues and questions that are ingrained into the hearts and soul of many Latinas and Latinos. I would like to conclude with a story that the theologian Roberto Goizueta tells. The story is meant to illustrate the popular misconception of Latinos and religion. Goizueta recounts how a very well-meaning Jesuit priest goes to visit a very poor Mexican woman. When the priest went into her home, he:

saw a picture of the divino rostro, [literally, the divine countenance] a graphic depiction of the bloodied and tortured face of the crucified Jesus. Thinking that such a picture could only exacerbate this woman’s everyday suffering, the next time he visited he brought her a cross on which was superimposed a risen Jesus, with arms raised heavenward. The woman thanked him and placed it in a corner of the room, leaving the divino rostro in its place of honor. Expecting her to replace the more somber, depressing picture with the more hopeful, risen Christ he had just brought her, the priest asked the woman why she did not take down the divino rostro. “You see, father,” she began to explain, “things in my family are pretty rough. My husband and I don’t get along too well, and I think that my daughter is on drugs or something. She spends a lot of time away from home and never talks to me about what’s going on or how she is. Sometimes I just feel like running away from it all, and then I sit down and cry, and I look at that picture of the divino rostro, and I know that he understands what I’m going through, that he’s been through it too, and I know that he loves me and that somehow he’s going to take care of my family. That’s what gives me the strength to go on and to keep trying to love my family and make things better.”[19]

The divine countenance opens up a whole new world of understanding precisely because it allows for some kind of interchange between divine and human suffering. Hispanic Christians—here I wonder if Protestant and Roman Catholics are more alike than some might realize—look to a Christ who is our daily companion, a truly human Señor who accompanies us daily in our suffering and who really suffered a human death for the sake of our salvation. This theological lesson has clear analogues in other domains. The process of understanding the struggle of adaptation (and the resistance to assimilation) of recent Hispanic immigrants is best gleaned from actual experience. On the other hand, there are few lessons as important as this one for those who desire to live out their commitment to work for and live among the multi-faceted Hispanic community in the United States.


[1] This review is adapted from a presentation made on Feb. 8, 2012 at the University of Chicago sponsored by Lumen Christi Institute. I have kept some of the vestiges of the original lecture because of the urban context of el beisman.

[2] See also his article: “Remapping American Catholicism,” U.S. Catholic Historian 28 (Fall 2010): 31-72.

[3] Timothy Matovina, Tejano Religion and Ethnicity: San Antonio, 1821-1860 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995).

[4] See, for example, Timothy Matovina, Guadalupe and her Faithful: Latino Catholics in San Antonio, from Colonial Origins to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005) and the edited volume: Virgilio Elizondo: Spiritual Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010).

[5] One early, provocative, and influential contribution to this question is Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, “One is Not Born a Latina One Becomes One: The Construction of the Latina/Feminist Theologian in Latino/a Theology,” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 10:3 (Feb 2003): 5-30.

[6] On this see Peter Casarella, “Recognizing Diversity after Multiculturalism,” New Theology Review 21/4 (November 2008):17-26.

[7] See the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends study from 2002, “Billions in Motion.” The full report is available on-line.

[8] Timothy Matovina, Latino Catholicism, 62.

[9] See, for example, Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminemos con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995).

[10] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality (Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Press, 1986), 12. Italics added.

[11] See the Pew Research Center Study “Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion,” accessed on-line at on April 1, 2014.

[12] Karen Mary Davalos, “‘The Real Way of Praying’: The Via Crucis, Mexicano Sacred Space, and The Architecture of Domination,” Horizons of the Sacred: Mexican Traditions in U.S. Catholicism, Timothy Matovina and Gary Riebe-Estrella, eds. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 41-68.

[13] When this talked was originally delivered, I was a Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University and taught several courses in which Mexican Catholicism in Chicago was our classroom. On this topic, one should also consult Diálogo 16, 1 and 16, 2, two numbers of a bilingual journal of DePaul’s Center for Latino Research dedicated to the “Cosmic Liturgy” of Latino Catholicism with special attention to the history of Latino Catholicism in Chicago.

[14] Elaine A. Peña, Performing Piety: Making Space Sacred with the Virgin of Guadalupe (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).

[15] See Rocco Palmo’s report on the blog Whispers in the Loggia: “In Chitown--La Morenita as the Motherlode,” accessed on-line at on April 1, 2014.


[17] John Francis Burke, Mestizo Democracy: The Politics of Crossing Borders (Texas A&M Press, 2003).

[18] The Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the U.S. (ACHTUS) is one such network. Their journal can be accessed at

[19] Roberto Goizueta, “U.S. Popular Catholicism as Theopoetics,” in Hispanic/Latino Theology: Challenge and Promise, Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Fernando Segovia, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 287-88.

Dr. Peter Casarella is an Associate Professor of Theology at Notre Dame University. In 2005 he served as President of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the U.S. (ACHTUS). He has published over fifty articles and edited four books, including A World for All? (2011).

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1 Comment

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