A conversation with...
Michelle A. Gonzalez
What do you hope readers will take away from Embracing Latina Spirituality: A Woman’s Perspective?
First, I hope readers will walk away with a greater understanding of what Latina spirituality is and the particularity of how Latinas understand their relationship with the sacred. At the same time, I hope women will see that Latina spirituality is also Catholic spirituality.
In what ways is the Latino/a worldview similar to the Catholic worldview, yet different from the American one?
For one thing, the Latina worldview is very sacramental. We give importance to Mary and the saints. We have this world that God’s presence infuses. At the same time, we also have particular cultural manifestations: It’s Mary, but it’s our Lady of Guadalupe or our Lady of Charity.
One thing that’s very Catholic that we see very strongly in Latinas is the emphasis on community and on understanding ourselves as part of a community and not just as individuals, as many Americans consider themselves. Latinas see themselves as part of a whole and not just standing alone. I see this particularly in Latina families. This is also a very Catholic way of understanding self.
It has been very hard for Latinas to “officially” get their voices heard by the hierarchical church. How have they compensated for this oversight?
You have to couple the fact that you don’t see a lot of Latinas very prominent in the U.S church with the fact that in Latin America, historically, there has not been a strong institutional presence of church. There were clergy shortages. There was a history of a Latino understanding of Catholicism that is not very institutional, for lack of a better word, because the institution wasn’t very strong in many countries. So one thing you see, that I talk a little bit about in the book, is the importance of popular religion, for example, of home altars, of wanting to express your faith in the absence of clergy which was historically the case for parts of Latin America. And then you must couple that with the lack of Latina presence in the church hierarchy.
You describe Latinos as a “bridge people” between Catholics of the northern and southern hemispheres. What do you mean by this, and what role do Latinas play in the global church today?
Latinas are the bridge people because they bridge what we would call the first world and the third world; they bridge the global north and the global south. One thing that sets Latinos and Latinas apart from other immigrants in the United States is the close proximity they have to their home countries or the countries of their heritage and the way they can travel back and forth to the home countries. That’s a phenomenon that we don’t necessarily see with European immigrants—there’s not the mobility because there’s not the proximity.
So Latinas are bridge people because they exist in those two worlds. They exist here in the United States and participate in the United States and are part of U.S. culture. But they also remain intimately connected to their homelands. And they don’t quite fit in either context. Being Hispanic, you’re never quite U.S. enough, right? Latinas’ culture sets them apart from dominant U.S. society. But when they go back to Latin America, people say, “You’re too U.S.; you’re too North American.” So Latinas exist in the middle, as a bridge.
Catholics have a tendency to equate unity with “sameness.” Why is diversity so important to a global religion?
First, I’ve never quite understood why people think unity equals sameness. I mean, if you look at the Trinity, you see the unity in diversity of the three persons of the Trinity. So we have a God who is one and yet diverse. And you don’t have to be identical to feel connected and to feel unified with another community. And frankly, that’s not the stance of Catholicism. Global Catholicism is extremely diverse and extremely rich. And, historically, Catholicism has always been diverse, and that richness is something we should celebrate because it reveals who we are as human beings. We are diverse; we have cultural differences; we have distinctiveness. That is what is wonderful about humanity, not something that should be erased or attempted to be erased.
Explain the difference between inculturation and syncretism. Is one good for the church and another bad, or is it more complicated than that?
I’ll talk about inculturation in terms of religion. Inculturation is when a religion takes on the cultural flavor, if you like, of a particular context in which it exists. Inculturation always happens. It happens in Catholicism; it happens in every religious tradition. Religions are not immune to culture. So when we talk about religious traditions being inculturated, we’re talking about the ways that the culture in which they exist shape the religious practices, rituals and sometimes even beliefs.
Syncretism is a term that fell out of favor for awhile, and now it’s being used more and more by scholars of religion to talk about when two religious traditions come together and mutually influence each other. And, then, of course, a new religious tradition is born. For many, often the word syncretism raises eyebrows because folks think of it as tainting one religious tradition or diluting one religious tradition. But, really it’s a new religious tradition being born. I would argue that all religious traditions are syncretistic. It’s part of the history of religion. You can’t understand Catholicism without understanding Judaism. There’s a reason we read the Hebrew Scriptures and a reason why the Hebrew Scriptures are in our Bibles.
How do Latino/as balance the teachings of the institutional church with their own popular religious practices?
One thing that needs to be cleared is the idea that popular religion is always anti-institutional. Popular religion often exists outside of the institution, but that doesn’t mean that it is critiquing or somehow trying to marginalize the institution. For Latinas, balancing the popular and the institutional is not problematic because it’s part of their faith; it’s how they express their faith. Latinas have the institutional, sacramental component of their spirituality, but religion is also part of our everyday life. It’s part of when we work, when we do everything. And that’s where you see the popular enter in strongly: in everyday faith. It’s not in contradiction with the institution; it’s not competing with the institution. Together they form the faith.
When does popular religion cease to be Catholicism? In other words, what are parts of the faith that can’t be compromised?
Of course, you’re always going to have the problem with popular religious practices that, because of the encounter with other religious traditions—which is such a hallmark of Latin American Christianity, you’re going to have particular practices and beliefs that may seem in tension with institutional beliefs. That’s always part of the reality, definitely. But it’s very difficult to draw the line. That line is drawn between what is considered authentically Catholic and what starts to go into that grey area where you start to wonder, “Is this Catholicism; is this really still institutional Catholicism, or is this something else?”
For all the positive things Marian devotion has given to Latinas, there is also a dark side: that Latinas’ sense of self-worth is tied almost wholly to their sexual purity and that Marian values promote submissiveness. How can Latinas have a healthy devotion to Mary without falling into those traps?
There’s always a way that devotion to Mary can be manipulated to oppress and marginalize women. This is a huge debate in feminism theology: Is Mary liberating or oppressive? While she can be extremely liberating and empowering for women, in terms of being oppressive, of course, Mary is an unrealistic ideal. She’s a mother but a virgin. There is an idea that women have this very unhealthy ideal that they’re supposed to emulate Mary, which is impossible. But I also think that that’s the case with many religious symbols and narratives. They’re complex, right? It’s not that Mary herself is problematic, but that Mary can be manipulated to marginalize Latinas.
You cite that by 2030, the U.S. Catholic church could be eighty percent Hispanic. How must the American church adjust to meet the needs of this culture and successfully pastor to them?
One thing is definitely with clergy. If we look statistically at the number of Latinos who are Catholic and the number of clergy and bishops and archbishops who are Latino, there’s a huge disparity. If you look at the intellectuals and scholars of Catholicism in the United States, there’s also a huge disparity in the number of Latino/a theologians in the United States and the number of Latino/a Catholics. So leadership is fundamental to this growing population.
Second, the recognition that all Catholicism is inculturated. So often you hear about American Catholicism or U.S. Catholicism—and then there is what Latinos do, like there’s this homogenous U.S. Catholicism. Being Irish-Catholic is very different from being Italian-Catholic or being Italian-American and Catholic or being Haitian-American and Catholic.
Another fundamental dimension is, again, going back to unity amidst diversity and recognizing that Latino/a Catholics aren’t the only Catholics who have inculturated rituals or symbols and that, in fact, all Catholics do this.
Monday, November, 17, 2008