WASHINGTON — Hispanic religion is in a huge period of flux in the United States, a new survey finds, with the share of Latinos who call themselves Catholic dropping sharply — by 12 percentage points — in just the last four years as many are drawn to both spirit-filled Pentecostalism and to disaffiliation.
Experts say the future of U.S. Catholicism depends on adjusting to Latino needs.
The survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center adds detail to two long-term major trends that can seem counterintuitive: Latinos are becoming a larger and larger portion of U.S. Catholicism even as millions are leaving the church. This is because of the growing size of the Hispanic population in the U.S., which now includes around 35.4 million adults.
The forces behind the changes are complex and reflect a globally dynamic religious marketplace. Americans in general are switching faiths at nearly the same rate, and the Pew survey shows that among foreign-born Latinos who changed, half did so before they came to the United States. Rapid urbanization and evangelical Protestant outreach in Latin America have pulled people away from Catholicism there as well.
But Cary Funk, a senior researcher with Pew, said the movement away from Catholicism in the U.S. was “striking” even with all the spiritual browsing that Americans are doing. The survey found one in four Latinos is a former Catholic.
Fifty-five percent are Catholic, down from 67 percent in 2010. Twenty-two percent are Protestant, 18 percent unaffiliated.
“Broadly, it’s a similar level of religious switching. But the size of the change and the speed is unusually large,” she said. “What we’re seeing is a greater religious pluralism among Latinos.”
Many experts feel the U.S. church hasn’t been fast enough at responding to the growth in Latinos, and a Boston College study also released this week found only one in four parishes has an organized ministry to Latinos, even though 33 percent of all Catholics are Hispanic.
“There are already predictions about the death of the parish in America,” said Hosffman Ospino, the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry Assistant Professor who led the study.
“If we fail to address the issues facing Hispanic Catholics and the parishes that serve them, then the parish structure in America will experience a dramatic decline as it did in Europe.”
The Boston College study found parishes with Hispanic ministries have fewer resources and that Latinos hold relatively few leadership positions in the U.S. church.
The reasons people gave in the Pew survey for leaving are complex, but the most common were that they “gradually drifted away” or “stopped believing in the religion’s teachings.”
Hispanic Catholics closely resemble white, non-Hispanic Catholics in their disagreement with certain core church teachings: 72 percent of Hispanic Catholics support use of birth control, for example.
The Rev. Virgilio Elizondo, a professor of Hispanic Theology at the University of Notre Dame, said he found the results “exciting, not alarming.” Parishes that offer vibrant programs to Latinos find people hungry for religion – more hungry than in Latin America, he said, where many people have virtually no priests because of clergy shortages there.
“Where the church is active, churches are packed beyond capacity,” he said. He also viewed people coming into Protestantism as a positive thing. “When you look in ecumenical terms, the greater the church follows Christ, that means more people are involved. There is excitement. That’s the reality. Latinos in the U.S. are excited about religion.”