By Maria-Pia Negro Chin
The number of U.S. Latinos who identify as Catholic continues to decline steadily, with only about 43% now self-identifying as Catholic, according to a new analysis from the Pew Research Center. The percentage of Latinos who are religiously unaffiliated also has grown.
Pew’s study, released on April 13, said the percentage of Hispanic adults identifying as Catholic declined from 67% in 2010 to 43% in 2022. At the same time, U.S. Latinos who identify as religiously unaffiliated (describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”) increased from 10% in 2010 to 30% in 2022.
Hosffman Ospino, a Boston College professor with years of experience examining the role of Hispanic Catholics in the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S., said this decline has been “in the works” for decades and that younger generations of Latinos are less likely to identify as Catholic.
“Something to keep in mind is that the Hispanic population is growing in the United States of America. And the largest source of growth for the Hispanic community is not the immigrant community as it used to be in the ’80s and ’90s,” Ospino said. “Now the largest source of growth of the Latino community is the U.S.-born generation, which is being raised largely by both immigrants and the U.S.-born Latino, Latinas. … It’s a very young population, so the trends that Pew is noticing reflect the larger trends among all young people throughout the United States across different racial, ethnic and cultural groups.”
U.S. Census Bureau data show the U.S. Hispanic population reached 62.6 million in mid-2021, representing 18.9% of the total population. Since the 2000s, the Pew study said, U.S. births have driven U.S. Hispanic population growth, with four in five (79%) of U.S. Latinos ages 18 to 29 being born in the U.S.
The Pew study also indicated that about half (49%) of U.S. Latinos ages 18 to 29 identified as religiously unaffiliated, while 30% identify as Catholic and 15% identify as Protestant. For comparison, only about one in five Latinos ages 50 and older are unaffiliated, with most older Latinos (56%) in this group born outside the U.S.
The survey also pointed out that U.S.-born Latinos, in general, are nearly twice as likely (39%) than foreign-born Latinos (21%) to identify as religiously unaffiliated, with young Latinos driving the trend.
“What this (Pew study) reveals in many ways is that the Catholic Church somehow was banking on the large growth of immigrant Hispanics who are Catholic,” Ospino said. “Now the question is: Are we ready to face the reality that evangelization in the following decades is going to be largely focused on those children and grandchildren of immigrants from Latin America, the U.S.-born generation?”
Despite the 24% decline over the last decade, Catholics remain the largest religious group among Latinos in the United States, the Pew report said. Latinos also remain about “twice as likely as U.S. adults overall to identify as Catholic and less likely to be Protestant.”
The Pew study also indicated that “Catholicism has seen the greatest losses due to religious switching among Hispanics,” with nearly a quarter of all U.S. Hispanics being former Catholics. The survey the study was based on stated that while about two out of three Hispanic adults (65%) said they were raised Catholic, 43% are currently Catholic.
For every 23 Latinos who have left the Catholic Church, the study said, only one has converted to Catholicism. The report also said Protestantism had seen more modest growth due to religious switching. Overall, the share of Latinos identifying as Protestants — about 21% of all Hispanic adults — has been relatively stable.
Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of the Subcommittee of Hispanic Affairs of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke about the historical context for Latinos in the U.S. leaving the Catholic faith. In decades past, during what Aguilera-Titus described as a time of “aggressive proselytizing” from other denominations that reached out to new Hispanic immigrants, the U.S. bishops responded with the first Encuentro (Encounter) process, which helped to formulate a national pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry in 1987.
“That (1987) plan really opened wide the door for thousands of parishes to begin to engage in Hispanic ministry,” he said. “And today, we have more than 4,500 parishes with a Hispanic Latino ministry, which means that they conduct ministry in Spanish, in an adequate cultural context.”
Aguilera-Titus added that with more than 16,000 parishes in the United States, the effort to develop and strengthen Hispanic ministry continues. “The more parishes engage in Hispanic Latino ministry, the less necessity Hispanic Latino Catholics will have to go to other churches,” he said.
For Ospino, secularization is the biggest challenge to Catholic Christianity and Protestant Christianity. “The younger generation, particularly, does not feel that organized religion serves a purpose in their lives,” he said.
According to the Pew analysis, disaffiliation from religion is more common among U.S.-born Hispanics: About a quarter of U.S.-born Hispanics (23%) who say they were raised within a faith are now religiously unaffiliated, compared with 16% of foreign-born Hispanics.
Overall, 52% of Latino immigrants identify as Catholic and 21% are unaffiliated, it said.
These steady shifts could have wide-ranging implications in the future. Hispanic Catholics make up close to 45% of all Catholics in the country. Yet, about 60% of all Catholics younger than 18 are Hispanic. So is the case for nearly half of all young adult Catholics (roughly ages 18 to 39), Ospino said.
A recent estimate by the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry research team, which the U.S. bishops support, estimated that in 2021, there were 31 million Hispanic Catholics. Ospino called this a “sign of hope,” but combined with the current Pew analysis, it is also a call to “shift gears.”
“The U.S. church as a whole, institutionally, at the pastoral level, at all levels, should treasure the gift of the Hispanic community” that still self-identifies as Roman Catholic, Ospino said. “That means immigrants, that means young people, that means U.S.-born as well, but we have to treasure and invest in the Hispanic community,” he said.
Ospino suggested trying to increase the number of young Hispanic children enrolled in Catholic schools and investing in youth ministry and parish-level programs designed to serve the U.S.-born Hispanic population and the need for outreach and catechesis that is not only in Spanish but also in English and bilingual programs.
“Let’s keep investing in the immigrant Hispanic community, but also redouble the energy and resources bringing the gospel among those who are U.S.-born and try to retain them. Otherwise, we will lose them,” he said.
Aguilera-Titus agreed that it is crucial to do a better job engaging “the children of immigrants, the grandchildren of immigrants” not only for them to remain Catholic but for their Catholic identity to be strengthened.
Calling this need “an area of great concern to the bishops,” Aguilera-Titus said engaging Hispanic youth and young adults and their families in the Catholic Church is a top priority for the new Hispanic Ministry Pastoral Plan that could be launched this year. The 10-year plan, which came forth from the extensive multi-year process of the Fifth National Encuentro, is on the agenda for the USCCB assembly in June, Aguilera-Titus said.
Like Ospino, Aguilera-Titus also spoke of the need for leadership development so Hispanic Catholics can serve the church and society. “We need to move more Hispanic Latinos from feeling welcomed in the parishes to developing a sense of belonging and then a sense of ownership,” Aguilera-Titus said.