Yesterday’s Washington Post had an interesting article about the growing charismatic movement within the American Catholic Church. This trend is being driven by Hispanics, who now account for one third of U.S. Catholics. According to the article, 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. describe themselves as charismatic — as opposed to only about 10 percent of non-Hispanics.
Here are some highlights from the piece:
In recent decades, the movement — a type of worship that includes faith healing and prophesying — has swept across Latin American countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, where Catholic leaders are using rock-star priests and beachfront Masses to stem the defections of their flock to born-again Christian faiths. …
Only a small percentage of charismatics — perhaps as many as 500,000 — belong to the formal organizations sponsored nationally by the Catholic Church. Instead, far more have joined informal, often fervent prayer groups at their local parishes.
One such group met two Sundays ago at St. Benedict’s, where about 100 Hispanic parishioners joined together behind the stained-glass windows of the school gymnasium. Over the course of four hours, individual lay preachers — called “animators” — took turns rousing the crowd with evangelist-style sermons in Spanish.
Sonia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old Puerto Rican, spun in the aisles as she spoke in tongues. The crowd began frantically waving white napkins in the air to symbolically purify themselves while a preacher began calling down the Holy Spirit. Moments later, one young woman began spasmodically dancing as if in a trance while group leaders rushed to her side with outstretched hands. She finally collapsed into her chair amid a chorus of “hallelujahs” from the congregation.
So how do these developments fit into the larger picture of evolving American religiosity? I’ll wade into numbers in subsequent posts, but for now let me just make a few conclusory generalizations based on the research I did for my book. First, despite a lot of talk about America’s peculiar resistance to secularization, in fact that secularization is occurring. Since the ’60s, the ranks of the unchurched have grown smartly, while the intensity of religious commitment by the rest has waned markedly. It seems, though, that among those for whom religion still holds an extremely important or even central role in life, fundamentalism and charismatic enthusiasm — i.e., the most blatantly irrational and anti-intellectual forms of Christian religious expression — have been gaining ground.
Which would suggest that Andrew Sullivan’s brand of liberal Christianity — a kind of middle ground between unbelief and wild unreason — is in danger of slipping away. Much of the old constituency for that type of spiritual life has moved out of the faith altogether.
I’m looking forward to Mark Lilla’s forthcoming The Stillborn God, out this fall, which I believe will grapple with these issues in detail.