Is 'Francis Effect' Slowing Latin American Decline?

Is the Francis effect slowing the diminishment of Latin America’s Catholic population? A new survey from the Pew Research Center suggests cause for hope, but reports it is too soon to tell.

Latin America is home to more than 425 million Catholics—nearly 40 percent of the world’s total Catholic population—and the global church now has a Latin American pope for the first time in its history. Yet identification with Catholicism has declined throughout the region, according to a major new Pew Research Center survey. Historical data suggest that for most of the 20th century, from 1900 through the 1960s, at least 90 percent of Latin America’s population was Catholic. Today, the Pew reports, only 69 percent of adults across the region identify as Catholic.

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The Catholic Church’s status in Latin America has drawn more attention since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope in March 2013, taking the name Francis. According to the report, “While it is too soon to know whether Francis can stop or reverse the church’s losses in the region, the new survey finds that people who are currently Catholic overwhelmingly view Francis favorably and consider his papacy a major change for the church.”

The report cautions, however, that former Catholics are more skeptical about Pope Francis. Only in Argentina and Uruguay do majorities of ex-Catholics express a favorable view of the pope.

Pew reports: “In every other country in the survey, no more than roughly half of ex-Catholics view Francis favorably and relatively few see his papacy as a major change for the Catholic Church. Many say it is too soon to have an opinion about the pope.”

In nearly every country Pew surveyed, the Catholic Church has experienced net losses from religious switching, as many Latin Americans have joined evangelical Protestant churches or rejected organized religion altogether. For example, roughly one-in-four Nicaraguans, one-in-five Brazilians and one-in-seven Venezuelans are former Catholics. Overall, 84 percent of Latin American adults report that they were raised Catholic, 15 percentage points more than currently identify as Catholic.

The pattern is reversed among Protestants and people who do not identify with any religion: While the Catholic Church has lost adherents through religious switching, both Protestant churches and the religiously unaffiliated population in the region have gained members. Just one-in-ten Latin Americans were raised in Protestant churches, but nearly one-in-five now describe themselves as Protestants. And while only 4 percent of Latin Americans were raised without a religious affiliation, twice as many are unaffiliated today.

According to the report, many of the major patterns of Latin American Catholic Church decline mirror trends found among U.S. Hispanics (tracked in a 2013 Pew Research poll). The U.S. Hispanic population (now approximately 54.1 million people) is larger than the total population in all but two Latin American countries—Brazil (195 million) and Mexico (113 million).

Nearly a quarter of Hispanic adults in the United States were raised Catholic but have since left the faith (24 percent), while just 2 percent of U.S. Hispanics have converted to Catholicism after being raised in another religious tradition or with no affiliation—a net drop of 22 percentage points, according to Pew. "The scale of this exodus is roughly on par with several Latin American countries that also have experienced steep declines in the share of adults who identify as Catholic."

Most former Catholics told Pew researchers that they left the church because they were seeking a more personal connection with God. Many former Catholics also said they became Protestants because they wanted a different style of worship or a church that helps its members more.

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