Fewer than half of U.S. Latinos are Catholics, says one poll. How should the church respond?

Delegates celebrate the Sept. 23, 2018, closing session of the Fifth National Encuentro, or V Encuentro, in Grapevine, Texas. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn) Delegates celebrate the Sept. 23, 2018, closing session of the Fifth National Encuentro, or V Encuentro, in Grapevine, Texas. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn) 

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.

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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.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 6 days ago

Maybe by teaching them why everyone should be a Catholic. The Catholic Church was created by God for salvation. The modern Church has apparently forgotten this lesson and has also bought into the bogus science being taught in our schools which undermines religion.
Also translate "The Bible is a Catholic Book" into Spanish and Portuguese. https://amzn.to/2P69xqi I highly recommend it to all editors, authors and readers here. It's a history of the Bible.

Fred Keyes
2 weeks 6 days ago

Bogus science?.... such as? I take it you are qualified to tell us what's bogus science and what isn't? Do tell.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 6 days ago

On some things, yes. On the fine tuning of the universe, origin of life and evolution I know most of the arguments and what is officially presented is deceptive and bogus or worse missing essentials. The simple answer is science doesn’t know how life began or evolved. It is a mystery yet I watched a lecture yesterday where the lecturer said it was one of the most proved area of science there is. It is anything but. Before you go off and try to prove me wrong, define what you mean by evolution.

Michael Bindner
2 weeks 6 days ago

What we know about viral adaptation is very strong evidence for the evolutionary paradigm. Claiming the paradigm is impossible because it conflicts with the myth of Adam and Eve is not sound reasoning. It is putting partisanship over reality.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 6 days ago

You just indicated your ignorance of the issue and bought into the deception. You are pointing to adaptation which is built into life but has nothing to do with the evolution discussion. Genetics which explains adaptive processes is a well developed science and is relevant to viruses adapting but has nothing to do with evolution or the origin of life. Viruses are usually not even considered life. Why and how did the adaptive mechanism appear? Aside: Nothing known in science precludes an Adam and Eve but I didn’t bring it up.

James M.
2 weeks 6 days ago

I thought RC bishops were supposed to be rather keen on evangelising & Catholicising people. Or is the Great Commission at the close of St Matthew 28 optional these days? If so, how come ?

“ 16But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. 17When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. 18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.””

https://biblehub.com/nasb/matthew/28.htm

That is a command. The Church is not at liberty to refuse it. “All nations” includes *all* - not some, or most. And there is no expiry date on that command. And it is commanded by God Incarnate. Last time I looked, the Church is not above God.

Michael Bindner
2 weeks 6 days ago

I worry more for young conservative Catholics who stay because they confuse loyalty and faith and who think self-reliance is a virtue rather than an impediment to finding true dependence on God. Such an attitude makes empathy with the poor impossible. This leads them to oppose measures to expand services to the poor.

The Nones, Anglo and Latino, are simply honest about not feeling the social pressure from families and communities to put in a Catholic face.

Applying social pressure to the Nones us not helpful. Preaching the Kingdom of God to the poor and oppressed is what the Lord commands.

Sha'Pearl Jones
2 weeks 5 days ago

As a young conservative Catholic, I attend the traditional Latin mass, I don’t identify with your description, nor do I know anyone who does. My life is not my own. I surrendered it to Christ. While I don’t believe in the patronizing ways of liberals in giving hand outs to the poor that do nothing but continue the cycle of poverty, I strongly believe in giving a hand up. My work with a local faith based charity that has been supporting the working poor in my community for more than a century is driven by my faith. (Eph. 2:10, James2:14-26). I worry for my liberal friends who are nones who have abdicated all personal care and concern for the poor to government. Even more, I worry for the state of their soul.

Laura Gonzalez
2 weeks 6 days ago

Over the years I have seen many comments on these pages from "good" Catholics who have no shred of compassion for those who come to this country, either with or without papers. Perhaps feeling the anger and disdain from their "fellow Catholics" have caused them to stay away.

Robert Macias
2 weeks 5 days ago

Compassion has many venues in the heart, in the mind, and in prayers, yet it is best left out of expectations.

JOAN AND GIULIO GRECCHI
2 weeks 4 days ago

The young generations, not only of Hispanic extraction, but from any other background, are not interested in being part of the Church. The same is true for people in poverty, who struggle every day to survive. Yet many of these people have a deep spirituality. I can attest to that, because of the volunteer work that I do, serving people in poverty. They often mention how they overcome their crisis, thanks to God's generosity. We have invited several of them to come to Mass, but Mass means nothing to them and it is just boring, since they never had any formation about its meaning.

It seems that the Church has two audiences: the relatively small number of practicing Catholics, and the larger number of former Catholics or people not affiliated with any church. Clergy are too stretched to serve both audiences, so most of them limit themselves to administer the parish and serve the practicing Catholics.

A way to reach out to the peripheries, as Pope Francis calls them, could be to commission the lay practicing Catholic, Hispanic or other wise, to go out there and encounter those far from the church and help them discover and develop their spirituality. They are not ready to join yet, but if they are helped deepen their spirituality they will be ready some day. Often it is the witnessing of those serving them that make an impression rather than any doctrine. Another way to do this would be to open wide the doors of the parish hall and invite them, not to a liturgy, not to an homily, but perhaps to a meal or to a talk about issues that directly impact them. When doing this, generally they do not mind an opening and a closing prayer, which can be made meaningful by addressing in the prayer some of their concerns. There is no road-map on how to do this. We have to experiment and see what works in our community.

JOAN AND GIULIO GRECCHI
2 weeks 4 days ago

The young generations, not only of Hispanic extraction, but from any other background, are not interested in being part of the Church. The same is true for people in poverty, who struggle every day to survive. Yet many of these people have a deep spirituality. I can attest to that, because of the volunteer work that I do, serving people in poverty. They often mention how they overcome their crisis, thanks to God's generosity. We have invited several of them to come to Mass, but Mass means nothing to them and it is just boring, since they never had any formation about its meaning.

It seems that the Church has two audiences: the relatively small number of practicing Catholics, and the larger number of former Catholics or people not affiliated with any church. Clergy are too stretched to serve both audiences, so most of them limit themselves to administer the parish and serve the practicing Catholics.

A way to reach out to the peripheries, as Pope Francis calls them, could be to commission the lay practicing Catholic, Hispanic or other wise, to go out there and encounter those far from the church and help them discover and develop their spirituality. They are not ready to join yet, but if they are helped deepen their spirituality they will be ready some day. Often it is the witnessing of those serving them that make an impression rather than any doctrine. Another way to do this would be to open wide the doors of the parish hall and invite them, not to a liturgy, not to an homily, but perhaps to a meal or to a talk about issues that directly impact them. When doing this, generally they do not mind an opening and a closing prayer, which can be made meaningful by addressing in the prayer some of their concerns. There is no road-map on how to do this. We have to experiment and see what works in our community.

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