Chicano Activism in the U.S. Catholic Church: A Conversation with Jason Steidl

 

Jason Steidl is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University, a graduate of Notre Dame’s M.T.S. Program, and a recipient of a 2016 Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center. He visited the Notre Dame Archives in July to research sources for his dissertation, which examines Chicano activism in the Church of the 1960s and 1970s as presenting models for contemporary Catholic ecclesiology. We met with Jason near the end of his visit to learn more about his work.

Tell us about your project.

Steidlweb

I came to the Notre Dame Archives to research PADRES, a Chicano priest group active from 1979 to 1989, and the Mexican American Cultural Center, an organization founded by Father Virgil Elizondo in 1972, which was dedicated to equipping the Catholic Church for ministry to Mexican Americans. This research will contribute to two chapters of my dissertation, which focuses on the Chicano movement in the Catholic Church in the 1960s and 1970s. Mexican Americans, like African Americans, sought to challenge racism in U.S. society. They discovered, however, that there was also racism in the institutions and structures of the Roman Catholic Church. At that time, for example, there were no native Spanish-speaking bishops in the U.S. Anglo Church leadership discouraged Catholic Latino spirituality and devotions, believing that they were a poor fit for the majority-white country. Catholic leaders from Irish and German backgrounds often had little interest in looking after the pastoral needs of the Mexican American communities charged to their care.

Seeing these problems, Chicanos began to challenge and change the Church. Beginning with the work of Cesar Chavez’s farm worker movement in the late 1960s and continuing through the next decades in many other forms, Mexican Americans initiated dialogue with the Church hierarchy that led to drastic changes in the Church’s relationship to Mexican Americans and other Latinos. My dissertation examines how Chicano Catholics achieved their goals in the Church through different forms of activism and organization. How did a minority group on the periphery of ecclesiastical power make its needs known to Church leadership? How did Mexican American Catholics draw attention to racism and provide alternatives for the long-term spiritual health of the Mexican American and broader Catholic communities?

What drew you to this subject?

My interest in this topic began with a year spent in Paraguay, where as an English teacher and evangelical missionary I first fell in love with Latino Catholic devotions, art, and spirituality. When I returned to the U.S., I became Catholic and entered the Master of Theological Studies program at Notre Dame. There my love for Latino Catholicism grew as I studied with Father Virgil Elizondo, the father of U.S. Latino theology, and Timothy Matovina, one of the preeminent theologians in the field whose work has taken seriously the history of U.S. Latino experiences. Father Elizondo’s love for his people and the Church—embodied in his lifetime of service, scholarship, and activism—inspired me to study the broader movement of which he was a part.

After my time at Notre Dame, I continued my studies in theology at Fordham University. While at Fordham, my thinking has continued to be influenced and formed by liberation theology, a way of reflecting on God’s work in the world that privileges the voices of the poor and those forgotten by society. For my work, the history of the Chicano community in the Catholic Church is a locus theologicus, a place to consider God’s action in human history on behalf of a people that has endured in spite of racism, poverty, and exclusion.

As a part of the LGBT community, whose voice is often silenced by the Catholic Church today, I find hope in the history of the Chicano movement for myself and others who seek dialogue, understanding, and pastoral care from Church leadership. My understanding of the Church stems from the life of Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels. Jesus reached out and healed people around him who were marginalized and hurting because of cultural stigmas and systematic, social sin. My dissertation—rooted in the history of the Chicano movement—seeks to understand how the Church can more faithfully embody Christ’s mission.

What have you found in the archives?

The archives I examined contain an array of personal and institutional histories. Most useful for my project has been the personal correspondence of PADRES and MACC leaders, the notes from their board meetings, public statements, and the organizations’ published materials in newspapers and other media. These different genres of archived materials give a broad perspective on the private and public faces of the Chicano movement in the Catholic Church. Sometimes the public record very closely corresponds to the private. Other times, what happened behind closed doors remained there. Either way, the record shows the many levels of complexity behind the decisions and actions taken by PADRES and MACC.

Has anything surprised you or offered insights you wouldn’t otherwise have?

One the greatest surprises in my research has been to discover the personal side of PADRES and MACC history. Most of my work focuses on organizational and institutional histories, not the individual personalities that made up these groups. In this regard, investigating PADRES’ archives was especially revealing. The organization began before there was a single native Spanish-speaking bishop in the U.S., so one of PADRES’ long-term goals was to have more Chicano bishops appointed to the episcopacy. Their archives bear witness to the unfolding process.

From letters requesting the intercession of the apostolic nuncio, who was responsible for passing the names of episcopal candidates to the Vatican, to the many resumes of candidates on file that were ready to be offered at a moment’s notice, PADRES never ceased advocating for a Church that better represented its Chicano members. What fascinated me about this advocacy was its success, which was clear from the archival record. Many of the Chicanos who became bishops during those years were affiliated with PADRES. One moment they would be on the board of PADRES working to increase Chicano representation in the Church, and the next moment they would be elevated to the rank of bishop. The personal correspondence of PADRES members bears witness to the joy its members felt each time one of their own was named bishop. The priests were so proud when Chicanos became bishops, because the appointments gave a louder voice to the entire Chicano community in the Church. The archives included media clips and artifacts of each episcopal consecration service, similar to the way that parents might keep mementos of their children’s graduations from high school.

How does a doctoral student in systematic theology end up doing archival research for a dissertation in ecclesiology? How do you explain your approach?

My ecclesiology and theological method is grounded in liberation theology, which is committed, in the words of Gustavo Gutierrez, to a “critical reflection on praxis in light of the word of God.” Liberation theology takes seriously the lived experiences of people on the peripheries of society and the Church. My dissertation in this tradition leads me to history, to explore the lives and perspectives of those who have often been excluded from the Church’s field of vision and concern. Retelling the history of the Chicano movement in the Catholic Church brings to the surface questions and themes that challenge traditional Catholic ecclesiology, which is often based more on models and ideals than lived experience. History also calls to mind parts of Church life, such as its participation in systematic racism, that are painful to remember. Still, this history is vital for helping the Church to change and to faithfully embody Christ’s mission to the world.

Mixing history and ecclesiology is not always a traditional theological approach. After I submitted my dissertation proposal for approval, some historians in my department told me that my project is too ecclesiological. On the other hand, and I have also heard from some systematic theologians that my project is too historical. My thesis, however, argues that we cannot understand ecclesiology well without understanding the Church’s history. Likewise, we cannot understand Catholic history well without considering the ways that people in history have imagined the Church. For my dissertation on the Chicano movement in the Catholic Church, history and ecclesiology are inseparable.

What other archives are you visiting for this project?

This was my first experience working in archives. Notre Dame was a wonderful and helpful place to begin my research. I also travelled to the University of California, Santa Barbara to visit the archives of Católicos Por La Raza, a radical student activist group from San Diego and Los Angeles. I hope also to go to San Antonio, Texas, to visit the archives for Las Hermanas, an organization of Latina women dedicated to transforming the Catholic Church.