Even as an increasing share of U.S. Catholics are Latino, Catholics account for a declining share of the country’s Latinos. Roughly one-third of Catholic adults in the U.S. are Latino, but just over half (55 percent) of Latino adults here are Catholics. As recently as 2010, that figure stood at two-thirds.

Close to one in four Latinos were raised Catholic but have since become (for the most part) Protestant or unaffiliated. Among Hispanics ages eighteen to twenty-nine, just 45 percent are Catholic, and that number could keep dropping as they age: Almost four in ten of these young adults say they “could imagine leaving the Catholic Church someday.”

These are among the more striking numbers from the latest report of the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. The wide-ranging report runs to more than one-hundred pages and covers American Hispanics’ religious affiliation, practices, and beliefs, as well as their views on social and political issues. But to Catholic believers, of course, the most urgent question is this: Why are U.S. Latinos leaving the Church?

One could argue that that should really be two questions: Why are some U.S. Latinos becoming Evangelical or Pentecostal, and why are others—especially the young adults—becoming unaffiliated? The groups take very different directions, after all: The “Nones” rarely attend worship services and consider religion unimportant, while ex-Catholic Protestants are by most measures more religiously observant than Catholics. (Four in ten Hispanic Catholics, but six in ten Protestants, attend church weekly, for instance.)

Despite taking very different paths, ex-Catholic Protestants and ex-Catholic Nones seem to have left the Church for similar reasons. “Gradually drift[ing] away” and ceasing to believe Catholic teachings are among the top factors for both groups on a list provided by Pew, and several less common factors influence the two at similar rates (moving to a new community, marrying someone of a different religion). Only on one item—finding “a congregation that reaches out and helps its members more”—did Protestants and the unaffiliated differ by a wide margin.

One element not mentioned by Pew may also affect both groups, and this may be the only one related to Latino ethnicity per se. Using a rich set of data on eighteen- to twenty-three-year-old Catholics in the U.S., Christian Smith and his colleagues write in Young Catholic America that “in most instances, within the Hispanic Catholic population, we saw a move from more practices and traditional beliefs to fewer practices and traditional beliefs as the emerging adults are generationally removed from immigration.” That is, young Hispanics whose families have lived in the United States a longer time are less likely to practice and affirm the Catholic faith than those who have recently immigrated.

Perhaps given Catholicism’s relatively deep roots in Spanish-speaking countries and its close links to many cultural practices, some Hispanic Americans experience the faith less as a relationship with God and more as an element of their ethnicity, to be expressed or set aside as they choose. If this is the case, it’s not surprising that many Hispanics abandon Christianity entirely or leave Catholicism in search of thicker gruel.

Aside from this admittedly speculative factor, Latino Catholics seem to leave the Church for the same reasons as other Catholics. When Pew researchers asked ex-Catholic Americans (of all ethnicities) in 2009 why they had left the Church, they offered respondents a list of items different from the one they offered Latinos in the more recent report—yet drifting away and ceasing to believe Catholic teachings were again commonly cited. Another reason to assume similar motives for switching religions: Hispanic Catholics and Protestants closely resemble their non-Hispanic white counterparts on just about every indicator of religious practice and belief that Pew measures. It seems reasonable to assume that these inter-ethnic commonalities extend to individuals’ reasons for remaining in or leaving a particular religion.

All of which is to say that the question of why Latinos leave the Church is less about Latinos than about the Church.

What should the Church do about all this? To serve and attract Latino Catholics, offer Mass in Spanish (when possible)—almost half of Latino Catholics prefer to attend Spanish-language Masses—and continue to reach out to new immigrants. But first and foremost, Latinos and others need not new programs targeted to their demographic but a living, salvific relationship with God. This may sound elementary, but as Sherry Weddell has documented, “the majority of adult Catholics are not even certain that a personal relationship with God is possible.” To return to the language of the Pew report, “gradually drifting away” from the Church is the foreseeable result of this uncertainty. So the Church must go back to the basics: preaching the Gospel, teaching members to pray, helping them hear and follow and love God in their daily lives. Better catechesis, more reverent liturgies, and all the rest matter, too, but apart from Jesus they will do nothing.

A former junior fellow at First Things, Anna Sutherland is a freelance writer and the editor of Family-Studies.org.

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Articles by Anna Sutherland

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