The recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reaffirms findings that have been known in Hispanic/Latino ministry circles for a long time. Namely, Hispanics/Latinos are responsible for most of the growth of the Catholic Church in the United States (71 percent since 1960). This pattern will continue for decades to come as Hispanics/Latinos account for nearly half of all Catholics ages 18-29 (45 percent), and far more than 50 percent of new immigrants achieving permanent residency status. The survey also confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country, now standing barely at 51 percent.
What is news about the Religious Landscape Survey is that Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses among all religious denominations, as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three US-born Citizens (31 percent) was raised Catholic, today fewer than one-in-four describe themselves as Catholic. The impact of this loss has been offset to some degree by immigration, as foreign-born adult Catholics outnumber Protestants by a nearly one-to-two margin (46 percent Catholic vs. 21 percent Protestant). But would new immigrant Catholics stay Catholic? New immigrants from Latin America to the United States experience a dramatic shift as they go from living in a mostly Catholic culture, to functioning in a historically Protestant, and yet, increasingly secular U.S. culture. This process of acculturation into a more fluid and pluralistic society can have a significant impact on Hispanic/Latino new immigrants’ religious identity. Previous studies by the Pew Research Center show that as Hispanics/Latinos move away from their language and culture, they tend to move away from their Catholic identity and practices as well. Fear of immigrants and a push for cultural assimilation may accelerate this process.
There has been a considerable amount of discussion about Hispanic/Latino Catholics changing their religious affiliation. However, we know that when Hispanics/Latinos are welcomed by the local Catholic parish, and served in their own cultural and linguistic context, they are much more likely to develop an identity as Hispanic/Latino Catholics, and a sense of belonging to the Catholic Church in the United States. According to a 2007 survey gathered by the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs, USCCB, more than five million Hispanic/Latino Catholics attend Mass in Spanish every week in more than 4,000 parishes across the country. A parish model focused on mission and community building has been the key to this success story.
In general, factors that contribute to the change from Catholicism to other religious affiliations may range from interfaith marriages to disagreements about certain teachings of the church. However, there may be factors that have less to do with specific practices or teachings, and more to do with tendencies that permeate U.S. culture today. A move from community focused living to individual focused living, the erosion of the institution of marriage and of family life, and a ‘way of life’ and self-worth that is measured by one’s ability to produce and purchase material goods, find today’s men and women with less time and energy to be in relationship with one another. These tendencies seem to be more prevalent in urban settings, where the pace of life inhibits human interaction, including religious gatherings. Pope Benedict XVI touched upon some of these tendencies during his recent visit to the United States. He remarked that we were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love for God and for our neighbor. He added “If this seems counter-cultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture.” As the U.S. religious and ethnic landscape continues to change, the relationship between faith and culture will become more relevant. New immigrants, particularly Hispanic/Latinos have a great deal to contribute to this dialogue.
Alejandro Aguilera-Titus is the assistant director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs in the Department of Cultural Diversity in the Church of the USCCB.