Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced earlier this summer that he is running for Governor, but a neglected aspect of the coverage was that Abbott (the favorite in the race next year) would, to my knowledge, be the first Catholic to hold major (Governor or US Senator) statewide office in Texas (Lorenzo de Zavala, Vice President of the Republic for a few months in 1836, notwithstanding). While this is only one small indicator, there is a major and still somewhat unappreciated shift underway in American Catholicism away from its historic geographic core in the belt running from Saint Louis and Chicago across the Great Lakes up to Boston (with outposts in places such as New Orleans and the major cities in California), one that I think is interesting to contemplate for the future of Catholic culture (in law and otherwise) in the US. But because many of us live in the vestigal culture of American Catholicism and read media (First Things, Commonweal, and America) produced out of it, the change is easy to ignore for now.
As dioceses in Northeastern cities close parishes, sell real estate, and face financial difficulty, the Church in Texas (as Rocco Palmo pointed out last year) is booming. Galveston-Houston is now a cardinalate see (occupied by a Pittsburgher), while Detroit and Saint Louis may never be again. What will emerge is a Church different in important respects--more influenced by Latino Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism and much less dependent on large Catholic institutions. The liturgical forms of American Catholicism will likely become more mega-church than Tridentine. The massive system of universities, hospitals, and parishes of Midwest and Northeast Catholicism will probably not be replicated in Texas. Consider there are about 7.2 million Catholics in Texas and about 3.4 million in Pennsylvania (source: Pennsylvania and Texas Catholic Conferences), but Texas has seven Catholic colleges or universities and Pennsylvania has 26 (source: ACCU). While Catholics build up some institutional presence (under the presidential leadership, for example, of former Illinois and UST law dean Tom Mengler at St. Mary's in San Antonio), they will also be entrepreneurs in non-Catholic institutions, such as the outstanding Catholic campus ministry at Texas A&M. And just as Catholic social teaching in America for the last century was shaped by (and shaped) the New Deal and the Great Society, Texas is, to put it mildly, more libertarian and distrustful of the state, and this will surely affect how the Church thinks about social problems.
Now, I happen to love Texas and think this is all great (if disruptive and inevitable) for the American Church. The major institutions of higher education in Midwest and Northeast Catholicism--Boston College, Georgetown, Villanova, Notre Dame, Fordham, and so on--will endure, in part by educating the burgeoning Catholic population of Texas. But as we think about how Catholicism and its social doctrine contibute to our public life in the United States, we would do well to consider how the exuberant and "strange genius" (to lift a phrase from former Economist reporter Erica Grieder's recent book) of Texas and its religious and political culture may soon be the dominant force in the American Catholic Church.