Wednesday, January 16, 2013


There is more to be learned from sitting in silence than from reading a blog post.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Culture and Ethnicity in the Church in the United States

Más Mural
photo by Ruby Sinreich, 2005

  Many of the tensions experienced within the Church in the United States have ethnic roots. The various ethnicities of the immigrants who make up this “immigrant church,” as Jay Dolan calls the Catholic Church in the U.S. in his book The American Catholic Experience, deeply inform attitudes and beliefs about church disciplines (125). There is often disagreement in this land – about what really is a Christian, how a Christian really ought to live, or what a Christian really ought to believe – that has more to do with ethnic and cultural backgrounds than with anything that Christ taught or exemplified. Nonetheless, the Church exists in a world of manifold cultures and ethnicities. If the Church intends to preach the gospel to all creation and to make disciples of all nations, as Jesus taught, she must seek ways of communicating this good news to each nation in culturally comprehensible terms (cf. Mark 16:15; Matt 28:19). In other words, the gospel must be in some sense inculturated. This is a deep problem in the U.S., where there is no one culture or ethnicity. In this nation, various inculturations of the same gospel compete. There is value in preserving these various heritages in all their diversity, rather than compelling all to assimilate to the dominant one, as long as people do not confuse cultural or ethnic expressions of Christian faith with the Christian faith itself – as long as Christians can learn to recognize Christ in cultures and ethnicities other than their own.
        The issue of ethnicity has particularly affected Eastern Christians in America. Partly because the migration to America from Eastern Europe and the Middle East began in significant numbers later than that from Western Europe in the history of immigration to this land, there was – from the moment of their arrival – pressure upon the minority ethnic communities of Eastern Christians in America to assimilate to the dominant culture of the larger Church in America. This was particularly true for Eastern Catholics who, in addition to receiving pressure from the wider American culture to assimilate, also received pressure from the Catholic Church in the U.S., which was overwhelmingly Roman and primarily of Irish and German ethnicities. Certain strong historical forces motivated many American Catholics to desire assimilation and to try to compel newcomers to assimilate.

        It is helpful to consider the background of the Catholics who sought a culturally monolithic presentation of Catholic faith. Dolan describes the background of the immigrants who would make up the majority of the Church in America. They came from a certain experience of the Church in Europe. “Catholics could be found in many countries of Europe and throughout the Middle East. But, within each nation, Catholicism was culturally quite homogenous, with the native culture clearly the dominant force in the church” (Dolan 127). Having come from such unified and ethnically homogenous churches in Europe, perhaps it is not surprising that many Catholics wanted the Church in the U.S. to be similar. Consequently, many Roman Catholic bishops here did not know what to do with Eastern Catholics, who brought with them alien liturgical practices and church disciplines, which included, most problematically, the ordination of married men to the priesthood.

        One of the most contentious issues for Eastern Catholics in America, both historically and in the present, is married priesthood. This issue well demonstrates how a cultural particularity can become so deeply entwined in the popular imagination with the nature of the Church that disagreement is considered tantamount to heresy. Western Catholics do not permit the ordination of married men to the priesthood. They have not permitted it for many centuries. This church discipline is a product of culture, not of divine revelation or of early church tradition. Eastern Catholics, coming from a different culture, have a different discipline and do permit this practice. In the U.S., after both Western and Eastern Catholics had immigrated here in large numbers, there was cultural diversity. On this and many other matters, there were two contrary disciplines existing side by side. There were multiple inculturations of the gospel living as neighbors in one land. They did not always coexist harmoniously.

Alexis Toth
        Foremost among those who considered it essential for Byzantine Catholics to assimilate and adopt the ecclesiastical customs predominant in America was Bishop John Ireland. Ireland was a liberal who sought a thoroughly and uniformly Americanized Church. Toward this end, he particularly sought the latinization of the Ruthenians, particularly on the issue of married priests. Demonstrating how deeply went his culturally informed ideology, Ireland reportedly said to Alexis Toth on December 19, 1889, after learning that Toth had been married, “I do not consider that you or this bishop of yours [who ordained Toth] are Catholic.” If this quotation accurately represents Ireland’s beliefs, it would seem that to disagree with Ireland about this cultural practice was, in his estimation, to be non-Catholic. For Catholics of this ilk, the Church was inextricable from culture. Ireland’s perspective, as is well known, inspired Toth to lead thousands of Eastern Catholics into Orthodoxy.

        Prejudices against other cultures and ethnicities led to divisions within the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Ethnic groups in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century tended to isolate themselves into immigrant neighborhoods. They worshiped with one another, drank with one another, and lived with one another. They brought their European cultures with them and reestablished them as best they could in what Dolan calls, “cultural ghettos” (201). Because of cultural and ethnic prejudices, immigrant communities often isolated themselves and strongly resisted any kind of assimilation. “Prejudice among Catholic immigrant groups was widespread and led to overt discrimination and even open conflict in the parish” (Dolan 201).
The strong identification of the Church with a particular ethnic culture was by no means limited to Irish bishops and their attempt to impose Roman Catholic ideas upon Easterners. There were ethnic divisions between various predominantly Roman Catholic ethnic groups. Additionally, among and between Eastern Christians, ethnicity was a major source of division.

Eastern Orthodox Church of Holy Trinity
New Orleans, LA
        It was not like this from the beginning. There was a degree of cooperation among Eastern Orthodox Christians of various ethnicities when they first began to establish parishes in the U.S.. They were so few that their shared ecclesiastical and liturgical heritage was enough to keep them together despite their ethnic differences. Indicative of this, in December of 1867, in San Francisco, a group of Orthodox Christians established the “Greek-Russian-Slavonic Church and Philanthropic Society.” The name of this organization alone indicates the early cooperation among various ethnic groups. For another example, the earliest Orthodox parish in Louisiana, Holy Trinity Church, founded by Greeks in 1864, served both Greeks and Russians. It served the Liturgy in Greek and Slavonic and conducted parish business in English.

        This partnership between different ethnicities was uneasy from the very beginning, however, and as soon as they were numerous enough to function independently, the Greeks found it necessary to establish a separate diocese for the Greek Orthodox in 1921, disregarding the theoretical Orthodox adherence to the idea that one place ought to have one bishop. One might glean from this that they regarded their ethnic identity as Greeks as being at least as important, if not more so, than their identity as Orthodox Christians. Certainly, they found it necessary to create a jurisdictional division in America drawn on ethnic lines.

        Many have called American society a “melting pot.” While there is certainly interplay between cultures and ethnicities in America, they have not melted together as much as been tossed together. America is more like a fruit salad than a smoothie. There is no one blended-together American culture to which all Christians can assimilate – or to which the Church can inculturate the gospel message. Cultural and ethnic heritages have been preserved and passed down. American is a nation of multiple cultures. To make a disciple of this nation, then, the Church here must present the gospel in more than one way. Therefore, the preservation of diversity within the American Church is necessary. It is a good thing – a strength and not a weakness of the Church in the U.S.– that here the gospel is presented and lived out with different theological emphases and church disciplines by different communities. Perhaps here the Church is uniquely suited to “breathe with her two lungs” (Ut Unum Sint 54).

        However, while it is a fact that these different expressions of the faith grew out of different cultures, it is not clear to what extent they should continue to be associated with certain ethnicities. Some continue to believe that ethnicity is an important element of, not just cultural, but also ecclesial identity. To this very day, there are members of the Byzantine Catholic Church in America who believe that a married man ethnically connected to an Eastern Catholic Church is more suitable for ordination to the priesthood than is a married man of another ethnicity. This is not tenable. When a person grows up in a pluralist society like that of the U.S., it is likely and good that he or she will be aware of other cultures and ethnicities and will interact with them. Children of this nation become children of many nations. This should be promoted, not discouraged. The cultural isolation common among early immigrants should not perpetually persist in the United States. Interaction and dialogue between Eastern and Western Christians without seeking homogenization is good thing.

        In order to assist in the evangelization of the people of the U.S., Eastern Catholic Churches should also practice inculturation here to the extent that such would not compromise any essential element of the faith or tradition of the Church. There are legitimate differences that should be preserved – such as the tradition of a married priesthood, but there are also areas in which it is good to adapt – such as by the use of English in the Liturgy.

        Regarding language, His Beatitude Sviatoslav, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, stated after his recent elevation,
Patriarch Sviatoslav
We as a church descended from the mission of the Slavic Apostles Cyril and Methodius – great translators of the Scripture and liturgy – have an extraordinary mission to continue this translation so we may pray properly and profoundly in English, in Spanish, in Portuguese, in Ukrainian…. The question of inculturation is very important (Shevchuk).  
Language is one aspect of American culture that has indeed become rather homogenous. Gone, for the most part, are the “polyglot, cosmopolitan parishes of the early nineteenth century” (Dolan 197). It is important to preach the gospel in a language the people understand, and at the moment in the United States that is overwhelmingly English. This is changing to include ever more Spanish, of course, and the Church must respond to this as well.

        The Eastern Churches in the U.S. should welcome all people of whatever ethnicity or language and respond to their needs as well as it is able. The Church has changed throughout her millennia of history to respond to the needs of people in various places and times and to communicate the salvation, freedom, and eternal life available in Jesus Christ to every culture and ethnicity she contacts. Each particular Church should be the Church fully and should cooperate to evangelize the nation.

Most Popular Posts this Month

Most Popular Posts of All Time