Hispanic religion is in a period of great flux in the United States, a new survey finds, with the share of Latinos who identify as Catholic dropping sharply — by 12 percentage points — in just the past four years as many switch to Pentecostalism or join the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.
Experts say the future of U.S. Catholicism depends on the church’s ability to discern and meet the shifting needs of U.S. Latinos.
The survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center provides detail about two major long-term trends that on the surface appear counterintuitive.
On the one hand, millions of Latinos are leaving Catholicism; on the other, Latinos are becoming a larger share of U.S. Catholics.
But the growth in proportion is because of the growth in the nation’s Hispanic population, which now includes about 35.4 million adults.
The forces behind the religious shift among Latinos 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 pulled people away from Catholicism there.
But Cary Funk, a senior researcher with Pew, said the movement away from Catholicism in the United States was “striking” even with all the spiritual browsing that Americans are doing. The survey found 1 in 4 Latinos is a former Catholic.
Fifty-five percent of Latinos describe themselves as Catholic, down from 67 percent in 2010. Twenty-two percent say they are evangelical Protestants, compared with 12 percent in 2010, while 18 percent say they are unaffiliated, compared with 10 percent in 2010.
“Broadly, it’s a similar level of religious switching. But the size of the change and the speed is unusually large,” Funk said. “What we’re seeing is a greater religious pluralism among Latinos.”
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church is working to catch up with Latino immigration. While 3 percent of U.S. priests today are Latino, 15 percent of the men who will be ordained in 2014 are, she said.
“The growth in numbers has been so big, the challenge is still before us,” she said.
A study released this week by Boston College found that only one in four U.S. parishes has an organized ministry to Latinos, even though 33 percent of all U.S. Catholics are Hispanic. It also said only about a third of pastors engaged in Hispanic ministry are proficient in Spanish.
“There are already predictions about the death of the parish in America,” said Hosffman Ospino, an assistant professor at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and the leader of 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 reasons people gave in the Pew survey for leaving the church 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 the 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,” Elizondo said.
He also viewed people coming into Protestantism as a positive thing. When you look in ecumenical terms, “that means more people are involved. There is excitement. That’s the reality. Latinos in the U.S. are excited about religion.”
It’s hard to determine, experts say, whether Latinos will shift political affiliations with faith affiliations or whether the faith switch followed a political one. Often in the United States, religious affiliation and certain religious metrics — such as church attendance — are good predictors of people’s political leanings and views on social issues.
While Latinos of all faiths are strongly Democratic, evangelicals are more likely to identify as Republicans and the unaffiliated are more likely to lean Democratic — like Americans generally. Thirty percent of Latino evangelicals lean toward the GOP, compared with 21 percent of Catholics and 16 percent of those who are unaffiliated.
Tim Matavino, executive director of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, said Latino voting habits are not fixed. He noted that Latino Catholics tend to line up with the church’s official positions more than other Catholics: conservative on family and reproductive issues and liberal on economic ones, such as health care and public assistance.
“But the longer they are here in the U.S., the more that breaks down,” he said.