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More U.S. Latinos shift, drift outside Roman Catholic Church

A report on the “Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos” reads very much like a biography of Fernando Alcantar.

Like six in 10 Hispanic Roman Catholics in the U.S., he was born in Mexico, where “you are Catholic as much as you are Mexican. You like jalapenos and worship the Virgin of Guadalupe,” he said.

But once he moved to California after high school, his faith journey diverged — and derailed. Today, Alcantar, 36, calls himself a humanist.

The Pew Research Center report released in May is subtitled: “Nearly One in Four Latinos are former Catholics.”

Hispanics are still a pillar of American Roman Catholicism — fully a third of the U.S. church today. And their share is climbing with the overall growth of the Hispanic population.

More than half (55 percent) of the nation’s estimated 19.6 million Hispanics identify as Roman Catholic, according to the report, which uses “Hispanic” and “Latino” interchangeably.

That’s 12 percentage points below 2010, however, when 67 percent of Latinos surveyed said they were Roman Catholic, the survey found.

Surprises everywhere

“Everyone was surprised in some way by the findings, the first time the size of the decline in Hispanic Catholics has been measured in depth,” said Pew research associate Jessica Hamar Martínez.

“If both (immigration and shifting) trends continue, a day could come when a majority of Catholics in the United States will be Hispanic, even though the majority of Hispanics might no longer be Catholic,” the survey said.

According to the survey:

• Nearly one in three Hispanics (32 percent) said they no longer belong to the major religious tradition in which they were raised (not including changes among Protestant denominations).

• 18 percent of Hispanics today claim no religious identity, up from 10 percent in 2010. “I think people were expecting the growth in evangelicals among former Catholics but the rise of the unaffiliated was unexpected,” said senior researcher Cary Funk.

• 22 percent of Hispanics now say they are Protestant. This includes 16 percent who call themselves evangelical, up from 12 percent in 2010.

• The movement out of the Roman Catholic Church is led by the young and middle-aged. Only 45 percent of Hispanics under age 30 are Roman Catholic.

That sounds familiar to Alcantar of El Centro, Calif. He left Roman Catholicism at 18 and Christianity altogether by the time he was 32. Two of his three siblings are agnostic; only one sister remains Roman Catholic.

Among ex-Roman Catholics who turned to another faith, Pew found many have turned to the enthusiastic worship of Pentecostal and charismatic or “renewalist” faiths that celebrate gifts of the Spirit such as divine healing, receiving direct revelation from God and “a strong sense of God’s direct, often miraculous, role in everyday life.”

Multiple reasons

Most ex-Roman Catholics told Pew they either “drifted away” (55 percent) or just stopped believing in the teachings of their childhood faith (52 percent). “There’s rarely, if ever, a single reason,” Funk said.

Timothy Matovina, a University of Notre Dame (Ind.) theology professor who is familiar with the new survey, is skeptical that the out-the-door trend can be reversed, particularly for millennials. “Among all young people, it’s a challenge to keep them in a religion,” said Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies. “Can we stem the tide among Hispanics? I doubt it. Can we stem the tide among non-Hispanics? I doubt it. It’s not only Catholics who are struggling. Everybody is struggling.”

For more information, go to www.pewforum.org.


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