The massive immigration of Hispanics to northward into the United States over the past 50 years and how that influx has shaped American churches is one of the century’s biggest religion stories.
Even back in the 1980s, when I was covering religion for the Houston Chronicle, the word on the street was that for every Latino Catholic who made it across the border, plenty of Baptists and Pentecostals lay in wait to evangelize them. The mainline Protestant churches got into the act as well. Fast forward to around 2009 or 2010 at my Episcopal congregation in Maryland. At our Spanish-language service, 90 percent of the congregation were former Catholics.
The Roman Catholics haven’t taken this lying down, but it’s been an uneven fight, with one side undergoing a priest shortage with a typical congregation numbering in the thousands versus smaller and more nimble Protestant churches.
The Mormons have gotten into the act as well, as this article from Crux illustrates. This passage is long, but crucial:
The allure of secularism combined with efforts by other Christian denominations to appeal to Latino sensibilities has resulted in a mad scramble by Catholic leaders to create welcoming communities before a mass Hispanic exodus dramatically reshapes its once certain future.
Here in Salt Lake City, where the dominant Mormon population is known for its strong emphasis on community, the Catholic Church faces a specific set of challenges…
Catholic leaders in Salt Lake interviewed by Crux said that while relations between the two churches are friendly and supportive, there is often fierce competition on the ground for the many Hispanic residents who are reshaping the state.
The Rev. Martin Diaz, pastor of Salt Lake’s colorful Madeline Cathedral, said the Mormon social network here — and the social and financial benefits that come with being part of it — entice newly settled Hispanics looking to make it in their new home.
He hears from parishioners that others in his flock have left the Church because they were offered financial assistance, housing, or jobs from Mormons, and then felt obliged to switch churches.
“What happens with Hispanic Catholics, when they get close to the [Latter Day Saints] Church, often enough there’s a job that goes with that. Being who they are, they’re able to make those connections. Somebody knows somebody who’s looking to hire. It does happen that people have gone to the LDS church in order to get the services that go with that, whether that’s a job or food,” he said.
It’s rare to find a piece of religion reporting that documents the brazen battle for warm bodies that goes on between churches, especially when Mormons are involved. The latter has a huge missionary force all too ready to welcome the immigrant and the stranger plus the resources to do so.
The article goes on to inform Catholic readers they dare not rely on Hispanics to fill the church’s empty pews. One-third of the nation’s Catholics may be Hispanic now, it warned, but that percentage is dropping fast because so many Latinos are defecting to Pentecostals and in Utah, to the Mormons. The article includes a chart from the Pew Research Center showing how the percentage of Latino Catholics has plunged from 67 percent to 55 percent in only four years, partly due to the efforts by other faiths to pick off such low-hanging fruit and partly because many Catholics are simply quitting church altogether.
The best line in the piece occurs midway down when you read of how the Mormons are copying even the most Catholic of festivals to lure parishioners away.
Maria Cruz, who runs the diocese’s Hispanic affairs office, said she’s seen that robust proselytizing firsthand. She said she was once approached by members of an LDS church to help them celebrate the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a thoroughly Catholic and Latino festival held each December, which includes venerating an image of Mary, lighting candles, and praying a novena.
Mormons have historically frowned upon that kind of spiritual practice. And Cruz said she felt the LDS were trying to appropriate a sacred Catholic custom to attract Hispanic converts. She said she’s heard from some Catholics she works with in rural Utah that some Mormon churches even display images of the Virgin of Guadalupe in their buildings.
I would have loved to have seen a photo of that.
The reporter said the LDS church refused to comment on the matter. Normally, I’d say the writer should have interviewed lower-level Mormon officials but I know LDS policy is to instruct the locals to decline comment and send all interview requests through Salt Lake City.
As for displaying an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Mormons aren’t the first to employ this method. My Maryland Episcopal church did the same thing. Had the reporter inquired among some of the liturgical churches in Utah, he might have found the same borrowing of customs and nomenclature, such as referring to Holy Communion as the “Mass.”
Catholic leaders aren’t being caught entirely flat-footed by such efforts and the piece details a few steps they’re taking. What leaves the article a bit flat is the lack of quotes from non-Catholics. Maybe the Mormons weren’t talking, but there must be other faiths around Utah that can speak to fending off the overwhelming LDS presence in the state. Also, the reporter needs to correctly spell the name of the seat of the local bishop. It’s the Cathedral of the Madeleine, not Madeline Cathedral. (Its baptismal pool is in the photo illustrating this blog post).
Oh, and why not tell us why the building is “colorful.” Other than one paragraph describing a drive around the city, much of the article could have been done over the phone. The string of quotes were interesting quotes, but the piece did not capture the vividness of the local landscape, its Mormon temples and the immigrant Latino culture.
I'd also be interested to know if the Utah Catholics are fighting fire with fire. For instance, when LDS couples get married in Salt Lake City, there's a traditional place in town where the bride and groom pose with the Mormon Temple in the background. Has the Cathedral of the Madeleine set up a similar spot for newly married Catholic couples?
The team at Crux has provided us with an excellent example of where the Catholic Church is fast losing ground in this country. It’s one thing to run survey data with pie charts; it’s altogether something else to show up on the front lines and report about the casualties there.
Photos by Shutterstock