Growing up Catholic in the barrio

28 09 2009


On my way out of a Latino grocery score in Kenner (I was there to pick up some special cheese for AG’s sister, CG), some middle aged gentleman shoved a newpaper-like brochure in my hand, which I only realized a few seconds and steps later was a Spanish Protestant religious tract. I went to the Salvadoran restaurant next door to order some pupusas as a surprise snack for CG, and so I began to examine the evangelical rag with only mild interest. The front was all about how the Catholic Church preaches a “doctrine of demons” since it “obligates” (?) certain people to be celibate. It also went into the whole idea of works vs. faith, circumscision vs. uncircumscision, and other bizarre ideas formulated in a unique if rather superficial way.

When I got bored with that, I began to look around the small establishment, and noticed that there were two small statues of St. Jude, along with a happy Chinese Buddha (and some other trinkets). At least St. Jude won out in the numbers game. After my pupusas were ready, I was prepared to go out there and give that guy a “piece of my mind”, but he had cleared out by the time I exited the restaurant.

Of course, on my drive to CG’s house, I couldn’t help but go over in my head the arguments I was going to make to the evangelical street propagandist. I WILL NOT go over them here lest people “aching for a fight” turn my blog into a James White or Dave Armstrong combox fiasco. Needless to say, I have made some Latino Protestants and Jehova’s Witnesses very upset when I started running circles around them, beating them at their own Scriptural game. In Argentina, I’ve ambushed Mormons in the middle of small towns outside of Buenos Aires, arguing with them in English over how ridiculous their religion is. Given the right circumstances, I can make Mark Shea look like an ecumenical teetotaling pansy. That might surprise a lot of people who think I am some sort of muddle-headed crypto-Protestant. The fact that I chose not to turn my blog into such a combative forum does not mean that I won’t argue if confronted. It just means that I am trying to do something different here.

The more appropriate reflection is what reaction someone who doesn’t have my “catechetical formation” would have to this type of literature. If I could put myself in the shoes of a Mexican, Salvadoran, or Venezuelan immigrant reading that scandal sheet after having picked up their plantains or coconut milk at the store, I would have to say that I would have one of two reactions. Either:

1. I am sympathetic to their arguments. The Catholic Church has always been a “distant institution” in my life, and I haven’t been to Mass in about five years since I left country X, and I still want to find a good place to worship Jesus. Maybe I’ll try this place. or

2. I kind of like going to Mass. My girlfriend is Catholic, and my mom would kill me if I went over to “las sectas”. Besides, I am sort of attached to this St. Jude medal around my neck.

Growing up, the Jehova’s Witnesses were a constant terror in our neighborhoods on Saturday mornings. We had a “look-out” watching for them to see when they would come around the block, knocking on doors. Was our first reaction to break out our Catholic Answers booklets, to “defend our Faith” in the spirit of the great Internet apologists? No. Once we saw the Jehova’s Witnesses coming, we would shut the door, close the widows, draw back the blinds, and pretend that we weren’t home. Indeed, when they were at the door, even we rowdy children became as quiet as church mice. Only a few years ago, my grandparents finally caved in and bought a sign like the one you see above for the door. Not that it stops them…

Every time I’m home, I am always like, “let’em come to the door. I’ll deal with them.” My family takes some mild amusement from this. Not “pride” mind you, just amusement. A skeptical Protestant will think that my family is “poorly catechized” and brainwashed by the clergy who won’t let the people go “directly to Jesus through the Bible”. I think that I would retort that they just don’t want to be bothered. (I think this sign, for Mexican Spanish speakers, expresses the sentiment in a very direct and curt manner.) Hollister had tons of Mexican-American Protestants, and they always had the reputation of “taking religion too seriously”. I would say that my family was very religious, but religion, if memory serves, never was the topic of dinner conversation or anything like that. It was just something that was there. If someone died, you did a rosary novena for their soul. You went to go visit your family members’ graves on All Soul’s Day. You went to Mass, you were sent to catechism, and so on. But you did everything else other kids did, you weren’t “marked” in any way. You weren’t like the evagelicals who couldn’t do X, Y, or Z (drink, watch T.V. celebrate their birthday, etc.) because of what they believed.

Of course, as a teenager, I went, gun-ho, religious Catholic crazy, and have remained so to this day. Perhaps at one time, I thought it made me a “better Catholic”. Now I realize that I am no better a person for it, really. Does all of that “catechesis”, and better, “theological formation” mean that I sin less, or that I am more pious than my grandmother? Not really. Does it make me want to go on Internet sites and pick fights with Protestant cyber-pastors? Not particularly. Do I feel that my religiosity then has to be fundamentally different from that of my family who will shutter their houses instead of “standing up for their Faith” when confronted by would-be evangelical missionaries? Truth be told, my religiosity can’t help but be different. I “know too much”. But I am beginning to think that in my seminal moments of formation as a religious human being, Catholicism was a way of life and not a hard and fast system of institutionalized belief. It was just part of being a “decent person”, of helping out your neighbors, of honoring your father and mother as well as honoring my Father God (mi Padre Dios), His Son, and His Mother. Of eating special things during Lent, and going on a picnic with a trillon other Mexican families at Easter. The posadas, the processions, the desperate prayers to the Virgen Morena. And so on and so forth. These are not things that I can write down or express with ease, and even though they are parallel to, and even dependent on, the official religious line that people get riled up about on the Catholic media and Internet, it is just not the same, and my loyalty to them far exceeds my loyalty to American Catholic “pop theology” in all its manifestations.

Maybe this religion is not portable, and maybe it is indeed doomed, as every other “ethnic” Catholicism has been in this country. I guess my own very abstract endeavor in religious thought is to create a theoretical schematic based on the type of Catholicism I grew up with, the type that, for the outsider, appears to be mere “superstition” and “human custom”. I could just go quietly into the dark suburban night of American conservative pop Catholicism, purified of all of the strange “folk elements” such as cures for the evil eye or prayers to heads of garlic, but I would personally feel that I would be mutilating the religion of my ancestors just as much as that man handing out Protestant literature in front of a Latino market. I understand that many Catholics will have to settle for the Catholic Answers approach, settling for two minute answers for why Catholics do XYZ, and thus enter into the the assimilated, small “orthodox” section of the American Catholic Church. God bless’ em if that keeps them in the pews. But I, with all my education and “theological literacy”, have the obligation to do better for my ancestors than that.



16 responses

30 09 2009
john harmatolos

Arturo: On your former blog, I found that incredible picture of Hans Urs Von B. shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. I’m still trying to clean bits and pieces of my brain off the ceiling after my head exploded! And now someone tells me that stirrup pants are coming back(hopefully just for women). This almost more than I can bear!

30 09 2009
The Scylding

Ahem… methinks the lady protesteth too much…

29 09 2009
Dave Armstrong

I find the shocking displays of un-Christian behavior exhibited in this post to be appalling.

That’s right, and my outrageous arrogance, vanity, and limitless self-importance is clearly the worst behavior of all. Shame on me!

29 09 2009

I find the shocking displays of un-Christian behavior exhibited in this post to be appalling. These Internet religion debates distract us from the clear threat to Western civilization that is emerging as we speak.

I am referring to, of course, the return of stirrup pants in the world of women’s fashion.

29 09 2009
The Scylding

Arturo, you, you you Papist you!!

That is as much as I can muster. Now my apologetic energy is totally spent…. 🙂

29 09 2009

Like the Ochlophobist, I am deeply hurt by Arturo’s superior writing skills. I have a hard time getting people to pay me for the things I write. I take solace in my full head of hair.

29 09 2009
random Orthodox chick

The glare is kind of epic, huh?

Anywho, I really like when you write like this, Arturo. The fact that Christianity is equated to self-conscious, well-read Puritanism in this country would distress me if that were really the case — I wouldn’t be able to keep up the act.

29 09 2009
Dave Armstrong

Marvelous Christian unity on display once again. This sort of thing is why I swore off of discussion boards six years ago.

29 09 2009

This post was beautiful and profound.

And then the icing on the cake – the best of threads!

Thoughts of XYZ met with the most apt of litanies – aesthetic as pretty. Damn it doesn’t get any better than this.

Arturo, your gift is a blessing.

But that said, I have not personally attacked you in, something like, over 2 years now. OK, maybe less. So here goes: you are an evil Orthodox hating jackass who I really dislike because your writing is better than mine. And I don’t like the glare that comes from your head in the photo. Go mark on your calendar that I insulted you this day so that you can refer to it from time to time.

29 09 2009
Dave Armstrong

Who was offended? Good grief.

I simply tried to explain some of my point of view, hoping for the possibility of dialogue, but instead it is perceived by you as mere vanity, as if that had anything whatever to do with it, or as if Google searching proves excessive self-importance beyond any possibility of doubt. If this is considered a “charitable” and “aesthetic Christian” approach; sorry, I beg to differ. I don’t think it is all that pretty.

29 09 2009
Arturo Vasquez

You’re so vain, you probably think this post is about you…

It’s nice to see that you keep up with what everyone says about you. I have never felt myself so important. That being said, I have always thought that my more “mainstream”, quasi-apologetics articles are reserved for such sites as Inside Catholic and (horror of horrors!) Mark Shea’s own Catholic Exchange. So I do do what you do, in some ways. I just chose not to be so “renown” for it.

Anyway, I am sorry if you were offended. It was not my intent, nor was it the main thrust of the essay. Keep up the good work.

28 09 2009

-I would be curious to know about the religious practices of Latinos who have family roots in the United States that go back 3+ generations. How much of a connection would said individuals have with the traditions of their family’s homeland? –

While there is validity to this question, remember that the US is the homeland for some Latino culture. In the Southwest, many families became America not because they immigrated to the US, but becuase the US annexed their land. Some areas in our country, contrary to what the Minuteman would have us think, are Spanish-speaking and always have been. I could name spots in Arizona and California, but my impression is that New Mexico as a whole is one of these areas.

Sorry, that’s just one of those things I can’t resist chiming in about, even when it’s relevance is questionable.

28 09 2009
Dave Armstrong

Does it make me want to go on Internet sites and pick fights with Protestant cyber-pastors? Not particularly.

Insofar as you think this is characteristic of me (as many seem to think), as one of many Catholic apologists active on the Internet, it might interest you and/or your readers to know that I stopped visiting or commenting on public discussion boards in October 2003. On very rare occasions I visit one to clarify something that was written about one of my opinions (real or alleged). This was the case, recently with, e.g., The Fish Eaters forum (a place you link to).

There was some controversy involving me (probably I was referred to as a “Neo-Catholic” or suchlike, with the implication that I am compromised and theologically liberal to some extent), and I saw that one of the co-owners stated that she would love to talk on the phone with an apologist like myself. I wrote back, saying I would love to talk, and we had a very pleasant conversation for 90 minutes or so.

Likewise, I visit other blogs to comment only rarely. The nonsense on Beggar’s All always came about because my name and work was brought up in some disputable fashion (the owner is on record saying that I am a terrible researcher, and now he thinks I am psychologically abnormal, so this is expected), and I went over to clarify, and it (almost always) then became a free-for-all because of the anti-Catholic nature of that blog. The owner has written some 115 papers about me (I added them up recently to document how many there were), but I removed every paper written in response to him from my blog a month ago. I also have decided to not visit there anymore either, because sensible discussion is not possible to have.

I see also that you link to Athanasius Contra Mundum. One time I discovered in a Google search that certain opinions of mine were being inaccurately portrayed on that (Catholic traditionalist) blog, so I went over there, commented, and eventually the blogmaster (Ryan Grant) and I got into a series of excellent, model discussions and in due course came to have a lot of respect for each other.

I am not about argument-for-argument’s sake. I don’t seek controversy. I write what I believe to be truth (just as you do), and defend the same, and as a result, sometimes some folks become angry and want to confront me, and come at me with a jaded view of what it is I teach and believe. If it is necessary, I defend the Catholic faith against attacks, in such encounters. Then some folks seem to think that my defense is the ethical equivalent of the attack. But of course that doesn’t follow.

If my opinions are misrepresented, I generally defend myself, because falsehoods and lies do not help anyone, and besides, the attacks on me, are usually just an extension of the desire to attack the Catholic Church. It is thought that if Catholic apologists are attacked and discredited, then the Church is also. Thus, it is important sometimes to speak out against falsehoods being spread about in the attempt top discredit not just myself, but the Church as well.

Some might say, “just turn the other cheek.” Sure, that is an option; probably even usually the preferable one (I think, more and more), but it is not the ONLY option according to the biblical model, since we see St. Paul defending himself at great length against false charges, in his trial, described in the later chapters of Acts.

Therefore, one must use wisdom, prudence, and discretion to decide whether to ignore such attacks or make a defense. Beyond that, any man is entitled to respond to false public charges, is he not? I should think that is not even arguable. One can choose to take the arrows, no matter how false and unjust they are, but that is by no means ethically required.

28 09 2009
Dave Armstrong

Given the right circumstances, I can make Mark Shea look like an ecumenical teetotaling pansy. That might surprise a lot of people who think I am some sort of muddle-headed crypto-Protestant. The fact that I chose not to turn my blog into such a combative forum does not mean that I won’t argue if confronted. It just means that I am trying to do something different here.

To paraphrase you (since my name was brought up, in a not altogether favorable light):

Given the right circumstances, I can make Arturo Vasquez look like an flaming polemicist. That might surprise a lot of people who think I am some sort of relentless bulldog endless-debate apologist. The fact that I chose not to turn my blog into primarily an ecumenical enterprise does NOT mean that I am not ecumenical or that I won’t be ecumenical in method when the opportunity presents itself. It just means that I am trying to follow my apologetics calling and do something different from the usual ecumenical-only efforts.

Can you see the analogy I am drawing? Just as you may get pigeonholed in the way you describe, so do I. You did it yourself above, by making my name synonymous with brawling mudfights. That’s what the anti-Catholics would love everyone to believe, but it is not true to reality, if one views the totality of my work and my writing. I wonder how much you yourself have explored the range and scope of my website? There are over 2400 papers and they vary widely in method and content.

Defense of the faith is not always a pretty, dainty affair, because our opponents refuse to stop the polemics and the personal attacks. But there is a time and a place for vigorous (yet still charitable) defense. Precisely because anti-Catholics have shown themselves unable of civil discourse with Catholics, I have stopped debating theology with them for over two years now.

28 09 2009

I would be curious to know about the religious practices of Latinos who have family roots in the United States that go back 3+ generations. How much of a connection would said individuals have with the traditions of their family’s homeland? If I were to take a guess, I would think that the kind of complete or near complete assimilation experienced by the “white ethnics” probably isn’t possible or desirable in the context of Latinos, especially when you start bringing in issues of skin color and ethnicity into the debate. But these are just my impressions, and I could be wrong.

28 09 2009
Andrea Elizabeth

Your description of how Protestants and “right answers” Catholics don’t do xyz that your ancestors did and how your bond with the ancestors and xyz practices and way of life is stronger than the “right answers”, if I understand you correctly, is very interesting. Converting to Orthodoxy with its xyz practices from a religion and family orientation whose identity is anti-xyz is different. To be anti xyz is to be pro “right answers”. What if your ancestors don’t have these ways of life, except for a pared down version at Christmas and birthdays. Then family comes at odds with xyz, and Christmas and birthdays become arguments for and against xyz which are now all over your house.

Not that there aren’t right answers to support xyz. They don’t accept what I believe to be circle running around right answers, and I don’t accept theirs, though technically, sometimes I think theirs do seem more correct. So I’ve just learned to shutter the doors too. It’s becomes a decision between xyz lifestyle or iconoclasting my house and mind to keep the peace around them. Sometimes you have to pick which ancestors to make comfortable.

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