Fewer than half of U.S. Latinos are Catholics, says one poll. How should the church respond?
Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a troubling, though not surprising, survey about what it called the ongoing decline of Christianity in the United States. In some 168,000 telephone interviews conducted in 2018 and 2019, around 65 percent of U.S. adults described themselves as Christian, down 12 percentage points from 10 years ago.
Pew also reported that only 47 percent of U.S. Hispanics described themselves as Catholic, down from 57 percent a decade ago—another troubling sign given that the U.S. church has long depended on Latinos as a source of growth. The newest findings are consistent with trends in Pew’s annual political surveys.
Pew reported that only 47 percent of U.S. Hispanics described themselves as Catholic, down from 57 percent a decade ago.
The decrease is mostly explained by the increasing number of Latinos becoming “nones,” or unaffiliated with organized religion. Unaffiliated Hispanics increased by eight percentage points in the Pew data, from 15 percent in 2009 to 23 percent this year.
“The trend is there. We’ve seen it coming for a while,” Mar Muñoz-Visoso, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, told America. “The majority of the Latino community is born and raised here and subject to the cultural influences of this country. The Catholic Church needs to find a better way to connect with Latinos in the United States—both young people and families.”
The church cannot assume Latinos will continue to be Catholic in the future, Ms. Muñoz-Visoso said. She noted, in particular, the need for the church to consider changes among second- and third-generation immigrants. Nearly 70 percent of those living in Latin America are Catholic, Pew reports (though it finds an ongoing decline in that region as well), compared with about half in the United States.
“We need to do a better job of reaching out to the non-immigrant community, to the young families and the young people, and invite them to positions of leadership as well,” she said. “The church hasn’t made itself present with the message of the Gospel as much as we should.”
“We need to do a better job of reaching out to the non-immigrant community, to the young families and the young people.”
The V Encuentro process has helped identify these needs, Ms. Muñoz-Visoso said. Encuentro, which means “Encounter,” is an initiative from the U.S. bishops that began in 2016 and is intended to help the church better serve the growing U.S. Latino community. The church needs to encourage young adults to evangelize their peers, Ms. Muñoz-Visoso said, explaining that “young people can be bridge builders, beyond just the language skills.”
Ken Johnson-Mondragón, the coordinator of research for V Encuentro, cautioned against reading too much into a single survey. In 2013, Pew reported an even steeper decline in its National Survey of Latinos and Religion, saying that 55 percent of U.S. Hispanics identified as Catholic, down from 67 percent in 2010 (though its newest report indicated that only 57 percent identified as Catholic in 2009).
Regardless of the precise numbers, there does seem to be a long-term decline, but the data does not tell us why, said Mr. Johnson-Mondragón. The V Encuentro process, which has collected qualitative data from across the United States, helps clarify things.
“Older adults have talked about their children, teens and young adults who no longer practice the faith,” Mr. Johnson-Mondragón said. “They care for their kids and love their faith, so it’s frustrating for them to see their kids walk away from that.”
Some of it can be understood through inculturation, he said, as certain traditions that were meaningful for first-generation immigrants are not as significant for their children and grandchildren. Second- and third-generation Latinos are less likely to be Spanish-language dominant as well, so there may also be a language barrier involved in handing down the faith.
“They care for their kids and love their faith, so it’s frustrating for them to see their kids walk away from that.”
Christina Lamas, the executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, was not surprised by the recent findings either. “It’s part of the crisis we’ve been feeling in the church,” she said. “Unless we realize who are young people are, the trends will continue.”
That starts at the local level, Ms. Lamas said. Parishes and dioceses need to recognize the value of young people and ask them to share their opinions.
“Listen to what they have to say. Let them feel validated,” she said. “They need to feel like they belong. That’s big for millennials.”
As young Latinos advance in their education, they will have more questions about their faith, Ms. Lamas said. “If they don’t feel welcomed, they’re walking away,” she said.
Generation Z is already in the workforce and has become as large a force as millennials, Ms. Lamas said. “As a church, we’ve been behind the times for generations,” she said. “We’re always trying to catch up. What are we doing to catch up?”
Andrés Arango, the director of evangelization for the Diocese of Camden, N.J., noted an overall decline in Mass attendance at predominantly Latino parishes. While older generations may be more culturally Catholic, the same is not true for young Catholics, he said.
“Before, the concern was that they were leaving for Protestant denominations. But really, the gain is among the unaffiliated,” he said.
Ecclesial movements, like Charismatic Renewal, Emmaus and John 23, can help, Mr. Arango said. They focus on a personal encounter with Jesus and ongoing community support through faith groups.
“What we need to do is follow the example of these movements,” he said. “Pastors need to find ways to invite people. Hispanics, they don’t want to just come to Mass. Some parishes will do evangelization concerts, but it’s not just about music. It’s about a way to fall in love with Jesus.”
The church taking a stand on immigration issues is also important, Mr. Arango said, adding that “it’s our Christian call” to support immigrants. “We have an opportunity to be Jesus for them.”
Priestly vocations are another issue. For years, there has been a shortage of U.S.-born Latinos ordained to the priesthood. Immigrant priests from Latin America may not be comfortable with the English language and may be unfamiliar with the culture of young U.S.-born Latinos, Mr. Arango said. U.S.-born Latino priests could help serve that community.
“Hispanic ministry is not only ministry in Spanish. It’s bilingual, and in some places it’s in English,” he said. “I hope that in the Catholic Church we can become more evangelistic, not just for people to come to Mass but so that people can come to know Jesus. When Jesus is in your life, your life really changes.”