US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Immigration crackdown leads to empty pews

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Ever since Alabama introduced its strict new immigration law, it has been met with a criticism and resistance. The U.S. government has challenged the law on civil rights grounds. Religious leaders expressed concerns that it would limit their ability to reach out to immigrants. And farmers began to see how damaging the law was when workers disappeared, causing crops to be ruined when there was no one left to harvest them.

And now, the Center for American Progress has released a list of 10 reasons why the law is a disaster for faith communities. Most interesting is reason number one: immigrants (including some who are legal residents), out of fear, are staying home from church.

“We’ve already lost 20 percent of the congregation in the past few weeks, and many more will be gone by next week," says Father Paul Zoghby, a priest at St. Margaret Parish in Foley, Alabama, in a recent Washington Post story. "It is a human tragedy."

For the Catholic Church, the tragedy is two-fold. There is a concern, of course, for the human dignity of those who are being persecuted, regardless of their immigration status. But the church is also at risk of seeing a decline in perhaps the most active group of Catholics in the U.S. today.

Studies in recent years (such as this Pew Forum report) have shown that Latinos have changed the face of American religion, particularly in the Catholic Church. The USCCB offers numbers that show just how large the presence of Hispanic Catholics is in the church today, including the fact that more than 50 percent of Catholics under age 25 are of Hispanic/Latino descent. In other words, the Catholic Church of the future will be even more predominantly Hispanic. It is not just a matter of having them fill the vacant pews, but of serving those who share our Catholic faith.

I recently spoke with Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, who heads the U.S. bishops' Office of Hispanic/Latino Affairs, about the church's outreach to this segment of the population. The bishops are making it a high priority, he says, to reach out to the Hispanic population throughout the country. “We are very much of aware that even though millions are served (in parishes) across the country week after week, there are many others that we are still to reach," he says. "So it is a concern, and there is a growing response of reaching out and [making them] feel at home in the Catholic Church.”

With harsh immigration laws, however, that outreach will only grow more difficult. Immigrants, no matter their citizenship status, will continue to grow leery of strangers who may threaten their safety or the safety of their friends and family. As the rest of the Center for American Progress' list shows, these members of our church will be separated not only from the Eucharist, but from baptism, marriage, and participation in their faith community.

As parishes like Father Zoghby's keep losing members, we can't take an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to those disappearing from the pews. The church needs to make sure that all its members feel safe in practicing their faith--not just to keep up our numbers, but to carry out our mission as Christians.