Latinos, with a long cultural tradition of Catholicism in their native countries and in the United States, are turning in increasing numbers to Protestantism or simply leaving religious affiliation altogether. This is disconcerting for Catholic schools and educators because in many dioceses across the country, Latinos are a primary ethnic group in parish classrooms and in the pews on Sundays. This information comes from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 National Survey of Latinos and Religion, out this month and available online.
In the report, 55% of the 35.4 million Latino Americans call themselves Catholic. Approximately 22% are Protestant and 18% declare themselves unaffiliated with a particular religious group. According to the report, this means the number of Catholic Latinos has dropped twelve percentage points in the last four years. “Nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults (24 %) are now former Catholics.”
Why is this happening? The report explains that evangelical or born-again Protestants have “very high levels of religious commitment,” which in turn offers Latinos a more engaging religious experience each Sunday along with Bible study groups and opportunities to share their faith with others. Latinos also tend to be a more conservative political block, and therefore wish to be part of a more conservative religious affiliation. Although Catholicism globally might still be considered conservative, American Catholics tend to fall somewhere in between liberal and conservative views.
Demographically, the switch involved Latinos under the age of 50, but there is a split within that group. In Latinos age 18-29, all of the participants in the study identified themselves as having no affiliation with a particular religion while those 30-49 moved “toward both evangelical Protestantism and no religious affiliation.” When asked, many of the participants in the study (55%) said they simply “drifted away” from Catholicism while 52% said “they stopped believing in the teachings of their childhood religion.” Those who left said they were seeking “a congregation that reaches out and helps its members more.” Others left because of a “deep personal crisis.” There was also some attrition due to marrying someone of another faith. Three percent specifically mentioned the sex abuse by clergy as a deciding factor for leaving the Church. About three-quarters (74%) of practicing Latino Catholics said the Church needed to do more to address the scandal. Many of them also took exception to the Church’s position on divorce, contraception, allowing priests to marry, and the role of women, including permitting them to become priests. Half of Latinos who attend Mass weekly “support changing the church’s position on these issues.”
Pope Francis merited high marks with 45% giving him a “favorable” rating and 38% giving him a “mostly favorable” rating. Latinos who remained in the Church found the Catholic Mass to be “lively and exciting,” with 62% saying they felt new immigrants were welcomed into the fold. However, Pew research in the last decade has detailed the growing appeal of Pentecostalism to Latinos. Many desire a more “charismatic” experience in their liturgies and worship. These Pentecostal religions have been “burgeoning in Latin America and other countries in the ‘global South’ for the past century or so.” The research identifies this sect of Christianity as “renewalists” due to their desire for spiritual renewal by the Holy Spirit. These believers practice “speaking in tongues, divine healing, and prophesying. They also nurture a strong sense of God’s direct, often miraculous role in everyday life.”
All of this research backs up the idea that the Church is in a state of flux and change, and this puts the focus on Francis and his ability to bring back Catholicism as an instrument of spirituality and renewal in the world. While the number of Catholics continues to grow in Asia and Africa, those in America, always more liberal socially and politically, want their needs addressed as well. The Church must adopt a more transparent and definitive procedure for dealing with sexual misconduct among clergy, and study ways to adjust Church teaching to address issues in the LGBT community, to increase the role of women, and on social issues like birth control and same-sex marriage. Francis has made overtures in his letters, sermons, documents, and statements to the press, and he has backed up his words with actions to reform the Vatican bank and to appoint advisors and officials who might offer a fresh approach to Church teachings. The danger is in not moving fast enough to stem the tide of Latinos and other ethnic groups, long a staple of the Catholic faith, from leaving their childhood religion behind for something new and more dynamic.