By all accounts, Hispanics are the future of Catholicism in America. Already, most young Roman Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, and soon that will be true of the overall Catholic population. But the Hispanicization of American Catholicism faces a big challenge: Hispanics are leaving Catholicism at a striking rate.
It has been clear for years that Catholicism, both in the U.S. and Latin America, has been losing adherents to evangelical Protestantism, and, in particular, to Pentecostal and other charismatic churches. But as an increasing percentage of the U.S. Hispanic population is made up of people born in this country, a simultaneous, competing form of faith-switching is also underway: More U.S. Hispanics are leaving Catholicism and becoming religiously unaffiliated.
The seemingly mind-bending result: Even as a rising percentage of American Catholics is Hispanic, a falling percentage of American Hispanics is Catholic.
Nearly one-quarter of Hispanics in the United States are former Catholics, according to a new poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center. By comparison, about 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, according to a Pew survey released in 2008; the difference is partly explained by the fact that a much higher fraction of Hispanics started as Catholics.
The religious affiliation of Hispanics is of enormous significance to those interested in the future of religion in the United States, because Hispanics make up such a large and growing fraction of the nation's population. Almost all Hispanic immigrants arrive from countries that are predominantly Catholic, so the religious choices made by Hispanics are particularly significant for the Catholic Church.
Earlier this week, Boston College released a survey of parishes showing U.S. Hispanic Catholics have higher participation rates in sacramental activities -- Mass, baptisms, first communions -- but lower participation rates in other aspects of parish life than do other U.S. Catholics. Now comes the Pew poll, which finds faith-switching common and multidirectional, with no simple explanation.
Overall, Pew finds that 55 percent of Hispanics in the United States identified themselves as Catholic in 2013, down from 67 percent in 2010. About 22 percent of Hispanics identify as Protestant -- including 16 percent who say they are evangelical or born-again -- and 18 percent say they are unaffiliated.
"It's surprising partly because of the size of the decline in a short period," said Cary Funk, a senior researcher at Pew. "We're seeing an increase in religious pluralism among Hispanics, and also greater polarization on the religious spectrum."
The Pew survey was conducted in English and Spanish with 5,103 Hispanic adults in the United States; the telephone poll was done by landline and cellphone telephone in the spring and summer of last year, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Previous research has noted Hispanics in the United States are leaving religion as they assimilate to a more broadly secular culture. The Pew poll finds the rise in the number of Hispanics who say they are unaffiliated particularly pronounced among Hispanics under age 30, and it comes at a time when more and more Americans are becoming part of what religion researchers call "the nones," people who say they are not affiliated with a religious tradition.