Communion vote puts spotlight on Hispanic Catholics

Archbishop José H. Gomez at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
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Hispanic Catholics are in the spotlight as President Biden navigates difficult waters following a vote by U.S.-based bishops to advance an effort to deny Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion rights.

While Latinos are predominantly Catholic, there are divisions within different Hispanic communities on social issues like abortion.

Younger U.S. Hispanics tend to be more liberal on the issue, as are U.S.-born Hispanics, while older and immigrant Latin American Catholics are more likely to support stringent restrictions on abortions.

Biden and Democrats are wary of losing any ground with Hispanics, as several Latino-heavy districts throughout the country are expected to be competitive in 2022.

Biden fell short of expectations with Hispanic voters in 2020, receiving 66 percent of the Hispanic vote, a percentage point behind what Hillary Clinton captured in 2016 as the Democratic Party’s nominee.

Religion is a deeply personal and familiar issue for many practicing Hispanic homes, and Hispanics of Mexican descent are more accustomed to the stark implementation of the separation between church and state in that country.

“I’m Catholic and as a Catholic I’m not for abortion, but I also believe that there’s a separation between church and state and even though those are my religious values, I have to respect others who maybe differ from that,” said Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas).

“I learned to be anti-abortion at church and at home, and I just don’t believe you can legislate values and I don’t believe the Catholic Church should hold people to that standard,” he added.

According to a 2019 Public Religion Research Institute survey, Hispanics are the only race or ethnicity where a majority of the population believes abortion should be made illegal in more cases than it currently is, or in all cases.

Still, opposition to abortion is more prevalent among Protestant Hispanics than among Catholic Hispanics, according to the survey.

It also found that a majority of Generation Z Hispanic Catholics support the legality of abortion, showing changing attitudes over time among Hispanic communities.

“Among younger generations, the longer people spend in this country, the more support there is for abortion and other kinds of issues that tend to fall more on the Democratic side of the political spectrum. While in general Latinos are more firmly aligned with Catholic teaching, that tends to diminish the longer they are in the United States,” said Timothy Matovina, Latino and theology expert at the University of Notre Dame.

Politically, young Hispanics are a growing constituency for Democrats who want to maintain and expand their gains in a community that tends to vote on economic, rather than social, issues.

“Latino voters care way more about the price of gas and bread than who is getting Communion,” said Chuck Rocha, a campaign consultant who ran Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) successful Latino outreach campaign in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

“This is nothing new for our community, hardcore Catholics playing this card. It’s been baked in for a while,” said Rocha.

The vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) runs the risk of angering Hispanic Catholics who question why the bishops would politicize only a portion of the church’s doctrine.

“What are they going to do to all the folks who are for capital punishment? Are they going to hold them to the same standard? Death is death,” said González.

Non-Hispanic Catholic pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (Calif.) have expressed similar views.

The USCCB vote has exposed some divisions within the church. The document will be up for debate, subject to amendments and voted on at the group’s next meeting in November.

The head of the USCCB, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, is a native of Monterrey, Mexico, and is now a naturalized American citizen. He is the first Latino to lead the U.S. bishops group.

Gomez is more conservative than the two leaders of the church with whom Biden interacts and from whom he receives Communion the most: Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., and retiring Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del.

Both have said Biden can receive Communion in their jurisdictions. Wilmington’s incoming bishop, Monsignor William Koenig, has not taken a public stance.

Gomez does represent a part of the Hispanic Catholic community, said Matovina.

“I think Archbishop Gomez is representative of a large number of Latino Catholics who are practicing their faith, in the sense that he is very pro-immigrant, has been a strong advocate for immigrants, but he’s also very pro-life,” he said. “A number of Latino Catholics who are committed to their faith are in line with much of what he advocates for. Of course for many everyday Catholics, their more immediate concern is for getting from Sunday to Sunday.”

Gomez has been a strong advocate for immigrants in the U.S. and has long called for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship.

His progressive views on immigration are very different from his conservative views on issues like abortion, as well as same-sex marriage.

Former President Trump’s actions against immigrants and rhetoric toward the immigrant community in the U.S. was a large factor Hispanic Catholics took into consideration at the polls. A Pew Research Center survey from July 2020 found that Trump’s disapproval rating among Hispanic Catholics was at 74 percent, up from 72 percent in January 2020.

“I think in general the Hispanic Catholic community was very concerned with the xenophobia that was fomented under the previous administration, so there’s a certain amount of goodwill with President Biden and his announcement of a change of heart of how to deal with the border and deal with Hispanics in general,” said Peter Casarella, professor at the Duke Divinity School.

While the USCCB’s threat is unlikely to sway large numbers of young Latino voters, or second- and third-generation Hispanic immigrants, it could be overridden among older Hispanics and newer arrivals by opposing language from the Vatican.

“In Latin America, the bishops are more focused on social justice issues, and the life issue is not ignored but would have to be put in the context of the seamless garment or the ethics of family. As part of the church of the global south, you see a lot of support for Pope Francis,” Casarella said.

Tags Bernie Sanders Catholic Church communion Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Pope Francis Ted Lieu Tim Kaine USCCB
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