Friday, February 10, 2006

Why Ethnic Churches Are Better

I must confess my general preference for ethnic-based churches over more cosmopolitan ones. Whenever I wish to attend a religious service, I always try to attend it at an ethnic-based church. Why is that you might ask? Well I have two basic reasons that to go to the heart of my world-view: 1) I am a staunch Catholic who takes my faith seriously and 2) I staunchly believe in the importance of upholding one's heritage. Now how on earth are those two related?

Well long-time readers of this blog may remember my post back in August which explained the relationship between religious devotion and national loyalty. I even typed a follow-up post the next day that further articulated my arguments. For the record I will repost the quote I posted in the follow-up:
"It may be futile and unrealistic to separate religion and ethnic identity. Many individuals behave as if their ethnic affiliation and professed religion are one and the same: to be born Croatian is to be born Catholic...There are few multireligious ethnic groups and their relative scarcity suggests that religion is the root of ethnic differentiations or that religious distinctiveness is a key to ethnic saliency."
-- Cynthia Enloe "Religion and Ethnicity"; Ethnicity edited by John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, pp. 199-200; 201
Well there you are. It's quite clear that many ethnic identities have been forged out of religious devotion as well. However, my previous posts discussing the strong links between ethnicity and religion seem to explain it from the perspective of how religion enriches the ethnic group. This post will seek to explain the same question from the opposite perspective, how the ethnicity enriches the religion.

There is no question that Catholicism is indeed a universal faith, but that does not mean it has to be a uniform faith. This perspective is especially found among us Eastern Catholics, who are well-known for mixing ethnic traditions with universal Catholic doctrine. As this website explains:
All the rites of the Catholic Church also hold the same dogmas; they are unequivocally united in faith and moral teachings, for they are all part of one Holy Mother Church. Yet their policies and practices often differ according to custom. This is a good and healthy thing; it shows that the One Truth of God can be celebrated in many different ways by various cultures.

I couldn't have said better myself. So ethnic traditions help show us Catholic the variety of ways in which we can express our faith. This is certainly a much more authentic form of religious "diversity" or "plurality" than that espoused by multi-culturalists nowadays; since their version usually means degrading age-old customs and traditions (more on that later).

The mixing of a peoples' particular traditions with the universal truths of the Christian faith is as old as the faith itself. Jesus himself identified closely with his own ethnic roots several times in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. When the question of whether or not non-Hebrew converts to the faith should obey Hebrew customs(like circumcision or obeying certain dietary laws), the Apostles determined that no they should not; they should be able to celebrate the faith within their own cultural traditions.

And from that day on, Christianity has spread to the far corners of the world by adapting itself to local customs. As this Orthodox-based article explains:"Roman, Greek, Syriac, Slavic, Indian, and other forms of Christianity came about as a result of a cultural fusion with the message of Jesus Christ." This process of adapting Church doctrines to local customs often goes by the term inculturation.

So how does inculturation help enrich the universal faith? Well, as mentioned above, it helps create a rich and authentic diversity within the universal Church. However, it's not restricted to just that. By merging ethnic and local traditions with the Church, you create a strong bond between man's two most deepest loyalties: loyalty to ones faith and loyalty to ones community. By serving your community you also serve your faith, and vice versa. There are too many examples of what happens when these two loyalties merge; but they all usually share the same characteristic: both loyalties complement and strengthen each other.

Interesting enough this is one reason why Steve Sailer believes the United States is more religious than many European countries, because "church services give Americans a rare opportunity to indulge in ethnic solidarity." Sailer sets this argument up against Fr. Andrew Greeley's argument that the reason is because American churches don't suffer from the same "inefficient and unmotivated government monopoly" as their European counterparts. To be fair, however, Sailer is not completely rejecting Greeley's argument, nor has Greeley completely ignored Sailer's.

In his book The Catholic Imagination, Greeley takes a sociological look at Catholic culture in America. The fourth chapter of the book deals exclusively with the Catholic concept of community. Greeley makes it clear that Catholicism is "a religion of community" and has always strived to be at the heart of community life. In particular, he points out the case of the Irish community in America; and how the Catholic Church played an immeasurable role in fostering their sense of ethnic pride. Yet at the same time, the Irish sense of themselves as an ethnic community also helped foster their devotion to the Church, especially since the Church was the major institution through which they could express their ethnic heritage.

However, since America lacked any official religious institutions, this strong link between religion and ones ethnic identity took on a more spontaneous form than what could often be seen in Europe. In Europe, there was often an official church and belonging to it was a matter of law. Not belonging to the official would've be interpreted as an act of treason. Although the church was often at the heart of a nation's identity, it was so in a more legalistic fashion. This was not the case with ethnic churches in America; one belonged to a church because they genuinely wanted to belong to that church, and not because they were forced to belong.

So it's quite clear that Greeley understands Sailer's argument perfectly well.

It was not only the Irish who intimately linked ethnicity with religious devotion in America. The same could be said of numerous other ethnicities: the Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, Rusyns, and even Orthodox peoples like Russians and Greeks. Of course even this is just a small list!

With the surrounding American culture pressuring these people lose their particular identities and be absorbed into the great "melting pot", these ethnicities often had no other institution to turn to than the Church, which also often the only significant link they had with the old country. So was within these circumstances that the strong link between ethnic identity and religion emerged within the American context.

So in many ways the arguments of Greeley and Sailer are both correct. It also helps explain the closer linkage between religion and ethnic identity found among ethnic diasporas in American then among many people back home in Europe. For example, the notion of a secular Polish identity would unthinkable to many Polish-Americans, yet many people in Poland might find that notion more reasonable. Again, going back to the issue of an official church; in Poland the Catholic Church has a more official position than it does in America. Although, it should be noted that First Things did an article showing the close relationship between the Polish national identity and Catholicism.

So I'm not arguing that a strong linkage between ethnicity and religion is completely lacking in Europe, far from it. Nor am I trying to argue anything about the relationship between church and state in this post. What I am saying is that for the most part, the linkage between ethnic pride and religious devotion has been more spontaneous in America than in Europe due to the lack of official religious institutions. Now when the major religious institutions of Europe started to come under assault from secularist forces, a more spontaneous link between the two forces did indeed emerge. This was especially true for the Catholic Church in France during the Revolution, and also with the churches under Communist rule. So this post is largely advocating the necessity of a strong link between religion and ethnic identity on a spontaneous level.

Anyways, getting back to topic. Since the church was the one major link between a community and its traditions, this also helped forge a general preference for more traditional forms of religious devotion. This remains very much true to this day, and one particular reason why I generally prefer ethnic churches. It also goes to the heart of why many churches have declined in recent generations.

For the most part, ethnic-based churches and communities were quite widespread within American society. If you were of Irish descent, chances are you grew up in an Irish neighborhood and attended services at a church with an distinctly Irish character. Not surprisingly, this was also a high-point for the Church.

It was not until World War II that this began to change. After the war, American society became much more mobile and as a result you would see people from different backgrounds moving into the same area. As a result, American society became much more cosmopolitan in nature; a society without roots. One could argue that it was this severing of peoples roots that made the social turnovers of the 1960's possible. Identifying oneself by your heritage became out of fashion, seen as being held hostage by the past.

Sadly, not only did this effect negatively upon ethnic identities, but also within the churches themselves. Inspired by "the spirit of Vatican II", rejecting age-old traditions within the faith became the order of the day. This was helped by the massive de-ethnization of many American communities, since as mentioned before upholding ethnic traditions was a major reason often for preferring more traditional rituals. In the new cosmopolitan society there was no need to uphold any traditions, ethnic or religious. It's ironic that it was done in the name of Vatican II, since inculturation was a major component of its doctrines.

As mentioned before, to this day, ethnic-based churches often perform more traditional forms of liturgy than in many non-ethnic churches. Although they still perform the Novous Ordo mass of Vatican II, nevertheless the services they do perform at least have some significant reverence towards age-old traditions and practices. On the other hand, many of the most outrageous spectacles passing off as religious services usually occur in parishes and communities that are much more cosmopolitan in nature.

Many Christians like to blame much of the religious decline in the modern era purely on secularism. While that certainly is true, however they seem to forget the other half of the story; the rise of cosmopolitanism within modern society. These two have too often been linked to each other to really overlook this.

The first great moment for secularism was during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. The major proponents of the age argued for the rejection of all religious traditions, which held back human knowledge for countless generations (at least in their minds). Well secularism was not the only thing the philosophes (the intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment) advocated. They also advocated, with the exception of Rousseau, a more cosmopolitan outlook on the world. Not only should man reject religious traditions, he should also reject "narrow loyalties"; like those concerning community, ethnicity, nation, etc. Instead man should inspire towards a more universal human consciousness.

Yet this connection between secularism and cosmopolitanism has been seen ever since. The atheist Communists who saw religion as "the opium of the masses" also declared that the "workers have no country"; that ethnic identities hinder the international unity of the proletariat. And of course today the biggest advocates for secularism are also those who push for the elimination of ethnic/national identities through globalization and multi-culturalism. This close connection often goes unrecognized by many Christians, sadly because it's "politically incorrect" to point this obvious truth out. To openly advocate that people should congregate with people of a similar background will often get you slandered as a "racist" or "intolerant". Of course that's non-sense.

An ethnic church is largely one that expresses the Catholic faith through the traditions and culture of that particular ethnicity. That does not mean it's exclusively for that ethnic group. The Catholic Church is still a universal church and Catholics are welcomed in any parish. A non-Irishman can still attend an Irish-based church, but he must respect the fact that it is a church centered in traditions of the Irish people.

Nor does that mean that the traditions of a particular ethnic tradition cannot enrich and be embraced by the whole Catholic community. Getting back to the Irish(since they're the most famous ethno-religious community in America), their traditions have pretty much shaped the character of the Catholic Church in America. Also there's been growing interest in the phenomena of Celtic Christianity.

I have noted in numerous posts on this blog, this notion that Christianity is really just nothing more than a religious form of globalization is so widespread within the churches, despite the fact it goes against traditional church teaching and practice. Yet this is merely a reflection of the cosmopolization/de-ethnization of society as a whole.

Yet, Cynthia Enloe (from whose article I quoted above) notes the very difficulty of trying to replace ethnicity with religion. Many studies have shown that there is a difference of opinion on many issues among American Catholics that correspond to ethnicity. Italian-American Catholics are more willing to support certain positions that Irish-American Catholics very often are completely opposed to. So again, as she noted, it's almost futile to separate ethnicity from religion.

So in conclusion, why are ethnic churches better? Because they usually are more traditional in both teaching and liturgy than their more cosmopolitan counter-parts. This stems from the fact that an ethnic church is seeking to express the faith through the time-honored traditions and culture of a particular people, which adds a strong sense of community within the parish. Not to mention these time-honored ethnic traditions have added a genuine sense of diversity within the universal Catholic church that respects church doctrine rather than disregard it.

So yes, that is why I prefer ethnic churches!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home