American Grace: Why Rick Santorum Is Not My Favorite Catholic

By Alex Gonzalez

It is said that Catholics have an understanding of humanitarianism and a strong belief that the role of government is to aide the poor, and those in need.  In the building of this nation, immigrant Catholics experienced prejudice, discrimination–and racism at times–in the early years of our nation. However, it was the Catholic Church that gave psychological refuge to immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Poland to help them cope with the separation of family and the abandonment of the “old country.”  But these are no longer the Catholic tenets, as Rick Santorum preaches under his “core catholic conviction.”  Rick Santorum’s views that the government needs to deport all immigrants illegally present in the US is an inherent contradiction with the humane American Catholicism. More importantly, when Latino immigrants and their first generation of American-born Catholics are the sole bearers of the  Catholic  faith and the “future of American Catholics”,  it would be dishonest  to say the Rick Santorum’ s views on immigration will make him a good Catholic.

While deliberately avoiding talking about the Constitution, Santorum has claimed Catholicism to be the foundation for his core “conservative” principles.  But, neither his views on the principles of American government, nor religious views, would reflect the views of humane American Catholicism or mainline Protestantism of American conservatism and governance. And this can be most evident on his immigration views. Santorum’s immigration policy falls in line with the general, hard-line stance held also by Mitt Romney. The son of Italian immigrant, Santorum strongly opposes any form of creating legalization for undocumented immigrants.  In fact, he believes that building more fencing along the border is an important part of the immigration issue, and also supports making English the official national language.  In fact, Santorum voted against establishing a Guest Worker Program with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in 2006, and is also strongly against in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. And he espouses these views while holding that his political views come from his religions Catholic convictions.

However, the issue of illegal immigration affects Latinos in American more than any other group. Of the estimated 11 million of undocumented people living in the US, 80% are Hispanic. Also, among those 11 million, about 3 million are in what the Pew Hispanic calls Mixed-marriages, that is American citizens with at least one undocumented member in the family—spouses or children.

By any account, there are an estimated 50 million of Latinos in the US—citizens and immigrants (legal and illegal). Of the 50 million, 75% are citizens. Though there might be some level of generational separation between those Latinos born in the US and those born outside the US, there is one single denominator for Latinos than, Catholicism.  But, one little known fact is that, while there has been a “white flight” in the Catholic Church for the last 3 decades, Latinos have been the new pillar of the Catholic Church in the last 2 decades.

According to Robert Putnam’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides us and Unites us, Catholics are about 25% of the US population, a proportion that has remained steady for 3 decades. But, American Catholicism has experienced a dramatic change.  Over the last 3 decades, “Anglos”—non Latinos—Catholics have been dropping out and disengaging with the Catholic Church.  During the same periods, the numbers of Latino Catholics has grown tremendously transforming the American Catholic Church.

According to Putnam, the American Catholic Church was “severely affected” in the 1960s by major reforms in Rome—the Vatican II. Thus, in recent decades as large numbers of ethnic whites Catholics (the grandchildren of early waves of white ethnic Catholics) were slipping out one door of the church, but a large number of Latinos have rushed in through another door.  Without the timely arrival of these immigrants and their offspring, the collapse of Catholic mass and Catholicism would have been stepper in America.   Thus, the combination of high losses of white ethnic Catholics, a young exodus, and low converts, the only thing that saved the Catholic Church was the arrival of Latino immigrants.  The transformation of church was so dramatic that of Catholics ages (18 to 35) 58% are Latinos, and ages (35 to 49) 34% are Latino.  This Latino presence within the Catholic Church makes it evident that the future of the church will be linked to the future of Latinos in America. And religious believes are linked to ethnicity.

In America religion, historically, is a connection –explicit or implicit—because most church goers attend ethnically homogenous congregations.  So ethnicity is link to one’s religion. And, that is the case for German Lutherans, Presbyterian Scott-Irish, Catholics Italians, Irish and Latinos.   Religion in America is resurgence, a bond between ethnicity and religion which translate in political power. This connection, or bond, hold up even after much generation has passed.

And even the most Protestant culturalist conservative scholar Samuel Huntington argued that The Catholic church was an essential part in helping immigrant to assimilate.   In the late 18th century, according to Huntington, prior to WWI, the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish groups pushed for integration of their immigrants. “The catholic church used its clergy, schools, press, charity, and fraternal organizations to persuade immigrants to give up their foreign culture and adopt Anglo American culture.” Irish bishops had difficulties in convincing Irish immigrants to abandon their traditions so as to conform to a more “ Anglo-American protestant tradition of values and moralism.” By the turn of the 20th century, Irish catholic schools and churches became a propagation of American values and American nationalism.

Moreover, Catholic Charities and Churches have always seen parallels between the last great wave of immigrants to the United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the current wave: like immigrants now, newcomers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came from different countries than their predecessors. In 1920, 75% of US Catholics were immigrants, with recent newcomers primarily coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. In response to their needs, the church created or significantly expanded all of its defining institutions, including parishes, schools, charities, hospitals, mutual aid societies, religious communities. For Catholics, the church tried to offer an array of educational, medical, social service, and social institutions that paralleled those of the larger society.

Rick Santorum,  just like Mitt Romney,  opposes  states like Texas having the  right to determine issues like in-state tuition for students.  His views are clearly unconstitutional because the 10th Amendment says that this is a state issue.  Rick thinks that it is ok to separate families and deport every undocumented person, which is inhumane and not a economic “conservative”  policy view. So every time Rick Santorum espouses a harsh position on immigration, and at the same time claims to have Catholic beliefs such as the foundation for his conviction, let’s be clear and  honest that those are not the tenets of American Catholicism.  Indeed, American Catholicism has been a source of physical (churches) and psychological (faith) refuge for waves of Catholic immigrants from many corners of the world throughout American history.  And these churches will never advocate for the separation of families.  Moreover, this American Catholics will never advocate separating Latinos families because they are and will be the main bearers of the future of the Catholic Church and the future of America.

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