That figure and the data reported here come from an important study by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It is called Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion, and its findings are based on 4,600 telephone interviews. The study explores Hispanics of all faiths and none, yet because more than two-thirds are Catholic, some findings can help observers to understand better what Hispanics look for in religion, what they believe and practice, and how they perceive today’s Catholic Church.
Even as the number of Hispanic Catholics has grown, the study finds, nearly one in five have moved in the opposite direction, leaving their parents’ faith behind. Most of these Hispanics affiliate with another worshiping community, usually Pentecostal or evangelical, but more than a quarter stop practicing any religion. Of these “seculars,” two in three are U.S.-born, English-speaking males (not recent immigrants) with markedly higher levels of education and income than the Hispanic population in general, and they hold liberal views on several specific issues. Among the former Catholics, two-thirds support married men and women becoming priests, and three-fifths disapprove of Catholic restrictions on divorce. These secular Hispanics appear to have assimilated to U.S. culture, and their differences with the church are straightforward.
Divergent views about church teaching, however, do not matter much to Hispanic Catholics who have become evangelicals. While nearly half (46 percent) of evangelical converts disapprove of church restrictions on divorce, for example, only 5 percent said they left the church because of the restrictions. Another four in ten converts agree with the teaching on divorce. Converts to evangelical Christianity also continue to hold at least two very positive views of the Catholic Church: two in three believe the church respects women at least as much as it does men, and three in four believe that the church welcomes immigrants. Such positive views did not keep these individuals Catholic, but neither did their differences with church teachings cause them to convert. Since greater percentages of Puerto Ricans convert than any other Hispanic group (nearly one in three), ethnicity may play a role.
Two credible explanations for conversions offer clues about possible pastoral responses. To most Hispanics, worship matters more than issues. Of Catholics who became evangelicals, three in five said they do not typically find the Mass “lively or exciting” (roughly a third gave dissatisfaction with Mass as a reason for converting.) By contrast, nearly three in four Hispanics who practice their Catholic faith said the typical Mass is lively and exciting.
What does “lively and exciting” mean to Hispanic Catholics? For more than half, worship must be charismatic or Spirit-filled. The 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics who call themselves charismatics regularly speak in tongues, evangelize, pray for divine healings and take the Bible literally. Nearly six in ten of them have less than a high school education, and six in ten were born outside the United States. Along with charismatic practices, however, most Hispanic Catholic charismatics retain a strong Catholic identity: they believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, regularly pray to Mary and pray the Rosary. It is striking that three in four of all Hispanic Catholics attend Masses in which several factors come together: the language is Spanish, the presider is Hispanic, and the congregation is mostly Hispanic.
Some Hispanics leave the Catholic Church because they are inspired by an evangelical pastor (35 percent), others because of a deep personal crisis (26 percent) or marriage to an evangelical (14 percent). But the former Catholics themselves gave the most plausible explanation: more than eight in ten desired a direct, personal experience of God. Such a desire would be good news, were it not for the heartbreaking inference that they did not experience such an encounter at their local parish. These people are not angry or negative about Catholicism. Rather, they yearn for something deeply spiritual: more of God. While most Hispanic Catholics find the Mass lively and exciting and stay, another group finds worship lacking and, seeking a direct personal experience of God in community worship, quietly go elsewhere. If parishes are to reduce the departure of nearly one in five Hispanics, they will have to meet this spiritual need.