Viewpoint: Multicultural Ministry Needs a New Perspective

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

One of the most pressing challenges facing the Catholic Church in the U.S. today is the necessity of more adequate ministry to the many ethnic communities growing within our national borders. Among the impediments said to be operative against effective incorporation of ethnic communities into the Church in the U.S. are that these communities are enormously diverse and, therefore, present huge challenges to mainstream Catholicism.

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 Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.


  1. I like the litany of characteristics. A lot of Catholics, especially those in ministry would aspire to these experiences for themselves and their communities. How to get there … that is the puzzle few seem able to solve.

    “Liberal-individualistic” is such a weird term, especially as a foil of sorts for “traditional-communal.”

    It seems to me that individualism is sunk pretty deep into the United States regardless of political ideology. The Church also endorses, in a way, a certain minimalism: annual communion and confession. And weekly, just go to Mass. This essay makes some thoughtful points. I wish he hadn’t dragged the liberal-traditional divide into it.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      Since “traditional” carries a connotation of valuing what has been hand down into the “now,” might a better foil be “modernist,’ i.e. that which connotes a cutting off from inheritance?

      1. @Kevin Vogt:
        I accept what Msgr Mannion is trying to diagnose here. I think he’s better off with “individualistic” and “communal” and not get cute with ideologies.

        Who’s a modernist? What does that term mean? Is it by the definition of a dead pope? A musician or architect or another artist? A theologian? If American society is solidly individualistic, I’d think being a modernist, in the sense of breaking with tradition, would be valued if modernism attached itself to communal emphasis. My take is that all modernism is relative.

  2. I’m in agreement that the individualistic/communal tension is really what’s in action here – and this tension cuts across any social/theological/political/liturgical spectrum.

    As a church musician, I have often found that “conservative” people are just as likely as “liberal” folks to think that the #1 criterion for liturgical music is “what gratifies my individual tastes and biases.”

    Two things that, in my view, need to be addressed in the larger issue:

    1) Though the various ethnic communities share some “deep structures,” those structures are manifested in particular and surface ways – devotions, foods, and other customs. I once had a congregant from Puerto Rico tell me not to talk to her about Our Lady of Guadalupe; it was a surface expression of a deep structure that came from a group which shared her language, but was rejected by her for a number of other (mostly non-religious) reasons.

    2) As immigrant households/families are in the U.S. longer, sociologists are finding that by the second generation, the broader values and practices of the surrounding culture have taken over the particular cultural heritage. This is also something that cuts across the ideological spectrum. So, as a sub-culture, Roman Catholics need to be aware of this dynamic in the larger culture.

    The matter of who is ministering to these communities also comes into play. Especially for rites/customs that take place in the liturgical framework (not only Eucharist), it would seem that clergy who come from these different cultures would be best-suited to serve them. Yet in doing so, we preserve ethnic/cultural segregation. That’s another part of the puzzle that Todd mentions.

    1. @Alan Hommerding:
      “The matter of who is ministering to these communities also comes into play.”

      That is a real issue. Ethnic groups that came over in the late 19th and early 20th century generally brought clergy over with them or requested clergy from their country of origin. In general, groups coming in large numbers today do not do that and have to rely on American clergy who really can’t minister to them adequately, as well as dioceses that are faced with existing clergy shortages already. The largest diocese in my state is about to have a massacre of close to half it’s parishes due to lack of clergy as well as parishioners. And most of those on the chopping block are the ethnic ones. Reaching out to new ethnic groups would really take a lot planning and education.

  3. The other aspect of this discussion is: How does Christ evangelize culture? Does Christianity require the rejection of what Msgr. is calling US Catholic Culture, which seems to be what he is suggesting? That is a very strange denouement indeed when you consider that most of our missiology is built around the idea of evangelizing from within and not practicing a wholesale rejection of any one culture.

  4. But yet, sometimes it happens, if you look around and/or know where to look. Our Filipino community has taken to Polish “Divine Mercy” like no other community. Our Anglo parishioners celebrate Filipino Simbang Gabi with as much gusto as the Filipinos (maybe because it’s a loophole to the ‘no Christmas parties during Advent’ rule). Our school children take surely celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe with my interest than when they celebrate Immaculate Conception a few days earlier. It’s not going in every direction, but it can happen, if the parishes, schools, and dioceses open the door.

    I’m afraid most places don’t want to open the door even a crack, because it smells of left-wing “political correctness” by right-wing members. And sadly that’s what American politics have done the Catholic Church in the US.

    And through it all, having ministered at communities that are mostly non-white, you know who doesn’t care? Usually the diverse ethnic communities. When bishops of Marquette and other places require specific hymnals and hymns, they (usually) kindly allow exceptions for non-white communities. Thus as long as someone doesn’t complain to the bishop that Gospel music, Lunar New Year celebrations, etc. don’t belong in a Catholic Church, the evangelization never will happen, that Rita rightly says should happen from within.

  5. It’s a tiny thing, but we are running an English group on the V Encuentro, led by leaders from our Migrant ministry. The notion is, in some small way, for those English-speakers, being led by Immigrants (billingual) is an conscientization experience. (perhaps for the Spanish speakers as well). They will gather with the Spanish discussion groups for a final sharing. Small potatoes, but something.

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