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. 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, Pew reports, only 69 percent of adults across the region identify as Catholic.
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. According to the report, “While it is too soon to know whether [Pope] 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. 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. Evangelicals have pulled people away from parishes and into their church pews often by promoting what those converting would consider more attractive ways of worshipping the Lord, an emphasis on morality and solutions for their earthly afflictions—mostly poverty related, said Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Some Central American countries and Uruguay now have almost as many Protestants or religiously unaffiliated people as Catholics in their populations. If the trend continues, “even Brazil, home to the largest Catholic population on earth, will no longer have a Catholic majority by 2030,” said Chesnut, author of a book on evangelicals in Brazil.
Some 65 percent of Protestants in Latin America belong to evangelical congregations. “Christianity in Latin America is thoroughly ‘Pentecostalized,’ with 70 percent of Protestants and 40 percent of Catholics identifying as charismatic,” Chesnut said. “If it weren’t for Charismatic Renewal, Catholic decline probably would have been even greater.”
According to the report, many of the major patterns of Latin American Catholic Church decline mirror trends found among U.S. Hispanics. The U.S. Hispanic population (now approximately 54.1 million people) is larger than the total population of 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.