Liz Alarcón: At Pulso, if our team has a few minutes to catch up before our staff calls, it’s only a matter of time before we start comparing our experiences growing up Catholic. Stories about skirt length in school or attending mass in Spanish, preparing for the sacraments as a kid, looking at the figurines in our family’s homes, our list of anecdotes goes on and on. In our last episode, we heard from three Latinas who redefined their relationships with the church and its colonial history in Latin America. They are choosing to find spirituality beyond the church by looking to art, nature, and social justice movements to connect with a higher power. But we never heard from the church. And considering that as Latinos we’re so often connected to the church from such a young age, we thought we should see what members of the church are doing in response to some of us choosing to find spirituality elsewhere. So I called on an old professor and fellow progressive, Father Matthew Carnes, yes progressive priests exist, to get some insight into what he’s seen working with Latinos and Latinas in a Catholic environment.
Matthew Carnes: I’m the director of the center for Latin American studies at Georgetown university. I’m an associate professor of government maybe for this conversation matters I’m a Jesuit priest and have been for quite some time.
Liz Alarcón: Definitely does matter. And I’m curious to know why you decided to focus on Latin America. When did that love for the region start?
Matthew Carnes: Well, really, as early as like middle school. I first started learning Spanish had the opportunity to start learning about Latin American culture and a tiny bit about history. And then high school got to go much deeper with that. Um, so I, you know, I really fell in love with Spanish language, um, and as a sophomore traveled to the region for the first time. Experiencing religion, actually, there in a way that I hadn’t experienced at home, touched me at a really deep level. Part of my experience in Latin America was seeing, tremendously wealthy areas and tremendously poor areas. I started to ask myself those questions. Why, why do we have such different experiences? Um, why do some, um, have more opportunities than others? You know, I wanted to understand those.
Liz Alarcón: So Something we touched on a bit with our last episode was the history of colonization, specifically in Latin America, by the Catholic church. Father Carnes, is this something you feel the church has reconciled with?
Matthew Carnes: Our history is really messy and violent and saddening and shameful in some ways. And that’s something we need to be able to talk about and in some ways, Latinos in the United States and I would say, uh, Catholics in the United States asked some of these questions for a longer time than have Latin Americans. But they’re asking the same questions now. And every time I go there, they ask them a little more deeply and a little more urgently. And so 10 years ago, I didn’t hear them talking about it. Five years ago, I started to hear it. Now I’m hearing it more urgently. And there was something I would say very, um, transformed about that conversation. And then it actually invites change. Pope Francis really surprised people a few years ago when he was in Bolivia and he met with, uh, Movimientos Sociales y Indigenas. And so he was talking to these indigenous groups and he said to them, you know, first of all, I need to apologize and I need to apologize for this really and structural, evil that was carried out often in the church’s name and with the church’s complicity and activity. I think that that’s something that the church was really afraid to say. Now you start to see the church being able to say it.
Liz Alarcón: And do you think we’ll see others in leadership within the Church follow Pope Francis’ lead and ask their congregations for forgiveness, too?
Matthew Carnes: We, as a church need to recognize that we have no right to ask for forgiveness. We can, we can say, we’re sorry. And we do need to say we’re sorry, cause that hasn’t been said enough before, but after that peoples have to be free to be able to not accept the apology and to reject it then too, because the evil was that severe. It doesn’t lead to easy solutions. It actually makes you really uncomfortable. Um, And I think there’s actually a merit in being uncomfortable because it forces you to start to address things and act on things. And a faith perspective, I think maybe gives you the vision you need to be able to live with uncertainty and live with the uncomfortableness and live with this thing of asking for forgiveness and constantly trying to do a little bit better and constantly trying to heal and constantly trying to reconcile. So that history is something that, um, we need to keep exploring and even in even greater detail and talking about more, but it also needs to then carry it forward to how do we think about ourselves today how do we then move forward together today?
Liz Alarcón: Can you tell us more about what liberation theology is for those who are not familiar with that term?
Matthew Carnes: So liberation theology is actually one of the great contributions I would say of Latin America to the Catholic church. It’s an element of engaged Catholicism. That looks for social change and wants to embrace it in all its forms. We live in this unjust situation. We often live without access or opportunities. Especially during the moments of civil war and violence, there was active repression against poor communities, and when you didn’t have a priest around, you didn’t have some other leader, you had small communities gathering themselves to read the scriptures. They started to say, that doesn’t seem to be what God wants. That same idea then gets picked up by women’s movements, um, by environmental justice movements to say, women, of course should have this same sense of liberation, the same sense of ability to participate, the same sense of ability engage, um, and have been actively marginalized and oppressed. And God is on the side of liberation.
Liz Alarcón: You touched on an important topic Father Carnes, which is the role of women in the church. And we know that there have been some reforms over the last several years and that Pope Francis has done a bit and has also been criticized for not doing enough. Uh, what are some of the reforms that you’ve seen in the church in the past several years that you’re proud of? And what reforms do you think are still needed, especially to continue to include women more in the Catholic church.
Matthew Carnes: It’s a hugely important question. It’s funny in church circles, he’s done a few things, things that are really radical that don’t look like that from the outside appointing women, to be on some of the key leadership councils inside the Vatican, which is something that was pretty unthinkable. But in terms of grassroots, women as first of all, deacons then priests, that’s something he’s been much more slow to do. If you look at who have been the bearers of the Catholic faith in Latin America and actually around the world, often are in the ways that they, uh, care for their children as mothers and the ways that they, raise their children in the ways that they’re often the ones that care for the dying and care for the sick. That’s always been there. In fact, if we go back long enough to, see women have really formal roles, too, so seems to be evidenced. The women in the early, the Catholic church served as deacons. So ordained ministers, much like priests – it’s a role a lot like that. Um, Pope Francis has proposed the idea of why not have women deacons, in fact he’s been some openness to even having women priests. Um, that’s something that I think would be really, it would be an important sign for the church to acknowledge the gifts of women and my own experiences, I’ve known women whose who would be, and are better preachers than me, better ministers than me. So I find it hard to understand why we wouldn’t have women in taking on every role within the church.
Liz Alarcón: The Latino community in particular, we Father Carnes is leaving the church en masse. There’s an exodus right now in the U S of Latinos choosing other ways to live out their faith. What do you think has to happen if anything, to bring the Latino community back to the church, or are they going to be gone forever?
Matthew Carnes: Overall in the United States, we see a decline in religious practice. That’s true across the board. Um, whites, more than Latinos. For Latinos and especially for Latin Americans coming to the United States well, Catholicism often still is kind of a central anchor and a focus. And the community that you see will be very important. And I’ve worked in a number of especially immigrant communities where that’s really, really essential to people’s lives, but you’re right. People then also do choose to leave for a number of reasons. Sometimes for the ways the church addresses of the really, um, uh, crucial social issues around sexual ethics, um, around the role of women, openness to marriage equality, those sorts of issues are ones that really are our central, I think a reason to why a number of people are choosing leave here at Georgetown. We have some very, just fantastic, Latino, Latin X students, Latin American students. Um, always struck by the number of them who really, really ask us as a Catholic community to have a mass in Spanish. And it’s interesting cause they might not actually go the other weeks. Um, there’s something about hearing mass in Spanish that touches something in them. And then beyond them, there’s even a bigger group that really every year wants us to do something on Dia de Los Muertos, and often on La Fiesta de Guadalupe and those two things somehow touch a chord for them. And I think there’s something really deep there. It doesn’t mean that we have to be like, Oh, did I get to mass every single Sunday? Did I check all the boxes? Do I believe everything the church is telling me? But this idea that I touched something transcendent about, about my culture and about my family and about my sense of where I belong in the world. That’s something that’s really, really deep and runs deep. And it’s hard to let go of, even if you’re like wanting to reject it, it’s really hard to let go of it. And so that’s where I think there’s real opportunities. How do we engage that? Because my own experience, every time I’ve been able to engage that part of myself, that touches what’s deepest to me, I feel more alive.
Liz Alarcón: Thanks for listening. We’ll be back with another episode of The Pulso Pod in a couple of weeks.