Times change, even religiously, even in America. Just ask Luis Lugo. The director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the U.S.’s leading think tank on religious trends, came to his adopted country from Cuba in 1962, only two years after an American presidential election had turned on whether a Roman Catholic man could be trusted to lead the nation. Now 58, Lugo can look over extrapolations from population trends and predict a once undreamt-of future. Propelled by mass immigration from Latin America, the U.S. Catholic Church, already the country’s largest denomination, will, in a few decades, contain the majority of American Christians. It’s not quite the Catholicization of America, Lugo notes—increasing numbers of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and the religiously unaffiliated will prevent that—but it does mark “the Catholicization of American Christianity.”
That alone is enough to signify an extraordinary transformation. Eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. once described anti-Catholicism as “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” Almost every dominant strand in American thought has had a problem with the Church of Rome. From the militantly Protestant first colonists, who characterized the pope as the Antichrist or the Great Whore of Babylon (epithets still occasionally heard now), to the republican hostility that saw the Catholic Church as a despotic foreign body in secret control of its treasonous American adherents, to progressives who see it as the very fountainhead of misogyny and homophobia, anti-Catholicism has been as American as apple pie.
The intolerance reached its violent peak in the 1830s and ’40s as the first wave of mass, non-traditional immigration brought boatloads of Irish Catholics fleeing disease and famine. The so-called nativist reaction was brutal at times. In 1844 riots in Philadelphia resulted in numerous deaths and widespread property damage, including, Lugo notes, the fiery destruction of the first campus of what would become Villanova University, his alma mater. The century that followed was (relatively) peaceful, but equally hostile. The resurrected Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s rode on a tide of anti-Catholic rhetoric, and John Kennedy, who narrowly won the 1960 election after reassuring Americans he did not take marching orders from the pope, remains the only Catholic U.S. president in history.
But even before Catholic numbers began their current expansion, a more genuine peace was beginning to break out, Lugo says. “When everyone assumed this was a Christian country, the fight was over ‘Whose Christianity?’ ” But in the culture wars of recent decades, Protestant and Catholic diehards found themselves on the same side of issues like abortion and gay rights. “Ecumenism of the trenches,” is Lugo’s summation.
The establishment of common ground may help sweeten for other American Christians the bitter pill of the coming Catholic majority. But swallow it they will have to, should the trends hold that Lugo sees in “the three dynamics” of American religion: the ease with which people switch between religious affiliations in the U.S.; the faith of immigrants; and differential fertility rates. “Find yourself on the wrong side of all three,” Lugo explains, “and watch your population crater: think Jews or Episcopalians.” (At 1.7 per cent of the current American population, Episcopalians, who produced 11 U.S. presidents, are statistically unlikely to see another.)
Not that Catholics are on the “right” side of all three dynamics, Lugo points out. Native-born Catholics now have the same low fertility rate as most U.S. groups, and they abandon their cradle faith as often as native-born Protestants. For every convert, American Catholicism loses four born-to members, and a remarkable 10 per cent of U.S. evangelicals are ex-Catholics. But Catholicism scores big on the other dynamics: arrivals from Latin America keep refilling its pews, and not just in the first generation. Hispanics have by far the highest fertility rates in the U.S. Among American adult Catholics under 40, Lugo says, almost half are Hispanic already. Just as Catholics are becoming a majority of American Christians, Hispanics are becoming a majority of American Catholics.
They will bring fundamental changes with them, according to Lugo. “Up to half are charismatics,” he says, “churchgoers who like their services with handclapping, divine healing, speaking in tongues.” They may change more than services. As voters, Hispanics cross American political fault lines in novel directions: progressive on some hot-button issues (immigration), deeply conservative on others (abortion). “Big-government social conservatives,” Lugo calls them. The political fallout is less clear to Lugo than the religious, but he is certain of one thing, that the changes in American Catholicism are “a leading indicator” of the future of the nation as a whole: “to know what the U.S. will be like in three decades, look at the Catholic Church.”