While these assertions are widely held among theorists of American Catholic multiculturalism, I suggest that they do not completely have the mature evidence of culture theory on their side.
The notion that American ethnic communities are quite diverse seems at first sight well grounded. Native American, Hispanic, African-American, and Asian cultures can seem enormously different from each other. Clearly considerable differences do exist at the levels of cultural customs and practices. But at the level of what anthropologists call the “deep structures” of cultures, there are notable and striking similarities.
Consider, for instance, that the cultures just mentioned hold in common many of the following characteristics: a pervasive sense of divine presence in ordinary life; an attachment to place and a closeness to the earth; a strong communal memory; a heroic attitude in the face of suffering and deprivation; a deep consciousness of the home as a holy place; reverence for parents, elders, and ancestors; a closely knit communal life; a well developed system of group festivity and celebration; and a ritualized response to birth, human transition, and death. I would call these cultures “traditional-communal.”
I would argue that the Catholic cultures of Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Poland were historically traditional-communal, exhibiting the same features just outlined, and that they continued to be so after being transported to the U.S. in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Accordingly, it seems to me that the distance between the Native American, Hispanic, African-American, and Asians ethnic communities and traditional European-based Catholicism in the U.S. was historically not as great as many multicultural theorists suggest.
However, just as the European-based Catholicism in the U.S. began to reach out to the Native American, Hispanic, and African, and Asian communities after the 1960s, it began to lose the ability to do so because it was fast adapting to the mainstream culture of the U.S., which I would describe as “liberal-individualistic.”
Liberal-individualistic culture, which has its origins in some strands of Protestantism, is highly puritanical, pragmatic, rationalistic, and privatized; it separates God from public life and assumes a secularist mentality. It is non-communal and non-celebratory.
The kind of American Catholicism which is liberal-individualistic is fundamentally incapable of dealing with ethnic and immigrant communities, especially the newer ones. It simply does not understand them and tries in vain to reach across the divide that separates liberal-individualistic cultures from traditional-communal ones.
I suggest, then, that if mainstream Catholicism in the U.S. today were less a reflection of liberal-individualistic culture, it would be better positioned to minister to Catholic ethnic communities.
The bottom line here is that the newer ethnic and immigrant communities are not the problem; mainstream U.S. Catholic culture is. While great efforts are being made in the Church to minister to ethnic communities, not enough attention is paid to the ability of these communities to teach mainstream American Catholicism how to be authentically Catholic—and less liberal-individualistic. Alongside diocesan offices reaching out to ethnic Catholic communities, I suggest that we need diocesan and parish programs in which Catholic ethnic communities can minister to and teach mainstream Catholicism in the U.S. how to recover its traditional-communal roots and become, therefore, more fully Catholic.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.