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Study: Latino Catholics joining the "nones"

For decades, polls and studies have tracked the movement of Latinos from the Catholic Church to Protestant denominations, especially Pentecostalism. But a new Pew Research poll shows that large numbers of Latinos, particularly young adults, have switched from Catholicism to the "nones."

Since Latinos are the future of the U.S. Catholic Church, the consequences are huge for American Catholicism. The percentage of Latino adults in the U.S. who consider themselves Catholic has dropped from two-thirds as recently as 2010 to 55 percent, Pew reports, based on a poll of 5,000 Latinos. One in 4 Latino adults in the U.S. is a former Catholic.

A great deal of attention has been focused on the number of Latino Catholics who join Protestant churches. Pew says that 22 percent of Latino  adults in the U.S. are Protestant, mainly evangelical. But that's not much more than the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Latinos, 18 percent.  The biggest movement to the "nones" is among adults under age 30. 

Pew's poll is the second major report this week to underline how crucial it is for the U.S. Catholic Church to respond to secularization among Latinos, especially young adults. Earlier, Boston College researchers, working with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, pointed to this secularization as a major issue.

The sharp increase in religiously unaffiliated Latinos, especially among the young, suggests that Latinos are assimilating into American society rapidly and reflecting its trends. Many dioceses have very vibrant youth ministries in Latino parishes, but these studies tell the church that something more is needed to retain those who are not so much drawn to Pentecostalism as to no church at all. 

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009).



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The fact that so many "nones" are young adults seems to be evidence that our transmission of the faith from one generation to another is in crisis.  

This poll shold be a bucket of cold water on those who hoped that the Latin "future of the U.S. Catholic church" would save us. Of course, young Latinos are going to act like their peer group in the surrounding culture. That is what young people do. The idea that they would cling to the culture of their parents and to Our Lady of Guadaloupe always was more wish than fact.

My mental image of immigrants stems from my time in Trenton, N.J. during the '80s. There the first generation never got too comfortable in English. The second generation, though, claimed it didn't know a word of Italian by the time the third generation came along. ("But what about when you talk to Nana?" "That's different.") So when people in the third generation went looking for their roots and signed up with Perillo Tours, they had to go to "the German lady" who taught Italian for tourists at night.

Our experience in Florida is a little different because the Hispanics keep coming so there is always a first generation around. But in most of the country, you are on the second generation, which is forgetting all the Spanish it knows (except to talk to the parents, but "that's different"). If Americans want a Catholic culture we are going to have to change the culture we offer, not sit around and wait for migrants to import a new one.

Tom - I agree.  One of my classmate couples, both of them persons of color and with Hispanic surnames, get pegged as Spanish speakers and steered toward Spanish-speaking ministry, when in fact both of them are second-generation and don't consider themselves particularly fluent in Spanish.  It's a big source of frustration for them. 

And I agree, strongly, with your concluding point.


Que sopresa!

Why should Latinos be any different than any other ethnicity that as they gain education and economic  status in the culture that they wouldn't have the same reaction to the church's failed patriarchy and ideology - as has been the case with every other ethnic group?

Face it, Catholics and especially the hierarchy has been whistling past the graveyard for decades with their heads stuck in a cloud of self-reverential nonsense.

No wonder that as Papa Francesco struggles mightily to pull the church from the abyss into which it has fallen, he has to contend with what he has described as the "leprosy of the church."

Well, one reason why Latino immigrants might be different is the fact that travel back to native lands is a lot more common and practical than it was for prior generations, particularly when it does not require crossing an ocean.  All of us travel more than our forebears did.  Moreover, the persistent push to adopt English instead of (and not just in addition to) a native language has relaxed considerably (my kids attend a Spanish immersion school -- a concept that was unthinkable 100 years ago for Italian, for instance).  Indeed, there are schools where descendants of prior immigrant groups are seeking a wider range of language instruction options in public school curriculum. 

So while I am not surprised by assimilation into the Nones, I am also not convinced that Jim Jenkins' point is correct, that current generations of immigrants are "just like" prior generations.  Assimilation on matters of religion is not necessarily accompanied by total assimilation in matters of language and culture. 

The study also noted that the majority of Latinos live in areas of the country where Catholics are already underserved (e.g., fewer priests proportionately), and I would add, in areas where "native" Catholics might not be so friendly to newcomers -- Arizona and Colorado, let's say.  So a little soul searching might definitely be in order on those grounds as well.  Who was it who said that the Catholic Church can maintain Latin America as a Catholic continent, or it can maintain clerical celibacy, but it can't do both? 

Yeah, America is the "melting pot," where your original heritage melts away so you can reinvent yourself the way the market place tells you to instead of your pastor and your faith.

Americans tend to conflate cultural differences among Hispanic Americans along national lines, or along socio-economic divides. We assume "they're all Catholic," and they'll happily worship with whatever Catholics already exist here.

But that doesn't happen. Catholics can be quite jealous of "their" parishes. When we moved here 25 years ago, members of several Mexican families were already well established in the community. They have served as village clerks and council members, worked on the election board, operated restaurants, been employed with local businesses, served on committees to organize the yearly village festival, belong to the Lions, attend the ever-popular Dale Carnegie courses, have taught our children in the local schools. 

The local parish, which is largely Czech and German, has been the place where assimilation seems to have happened most slowly. A few members of two Mexican families attend Mass at the local parish regularly. The rest attend local Protestant churches or drive 30 miles to attend Mass at Cristo Rey in Lansing.

Two years ago, in an effort to make the church seem more welcoming, a Virgen de Guadalupe was installed opposite Our Lady of Perpetual Help. There are still mutterings about how the Virgen "clashes" with the general decor of the place.

In the late 19th and ealry 20th century this "clash of immigrants" was more easily resolved because there were so many Catholic immigrants and so many priests that you could divide them into separate parishes with churches that might be, literally, across the street from one another, and it was no problem.  It cannot be said enough, the annihilation of cultural differences happened in a very specific way in the U.S. that related largely to compulsory military service in a time of national need.  "Assimilation" of Catholics across immigrant groups did not really occur until after WWII, when people moved to the suburbs and intermarriage and cultural immersion via the military softened if it did not eliminate entirely differences among groups.  My mother's family belonged to a "German Catholic parish" for generations, and that parish church closed in the early 60s, when families like mine moved to the suburbs. 

New immigrants, mostly Latino, do not share this history of cultural immersion that the Czechs and Germans do (in the old land, Czechs who speak Czech and Germans don't see each other as being part of the same group), and their shared experience, if you will, is more likely to occur by other ways -- among their peer group, for instance, going to high school and college.  I live in a place with a lot of Latino immigration, where more than half of the district's school enrollment have parents whose native language is Spanish.  I see this every day.

@ Barbara:  I didn't say "that current generations of immigrants are "just like" prior generations."  You did.  

My point was that there are underlying sociological and evolutionary processes at work that trumps anything that our hapless Catholic hierarchs have done for at least the last four decades to maintain their hegemony over the rest of the church.

My point is supported by the facts that in every culture and ethnicity around the world where women are educated they begin to gain economic power within their families of origin, then the birth rate begins to fall precipitously, and women begin to emerge from the runious misogynous patriarchy that has ruled women's lives for millennia.  

And since women are the primary educators and acculturators of their children, these changes in the collective consciousness begins to spread expotentially through the population.  Hence, people are increasingly letting go of the bonds which have tied them to the spent ideology of our Catholic hierarchs.

In other words, the sheeple have been increasingly voting with their feet for decades.

Is the Holy Spirit perhaps trying to tell us something?  Yah think?

Jim, those are different points from what you said above.  I am not disagreeing with you, I am pointing out that there are reasons why one might not necessarily expect Latinos to acculturate in the same way that prior generations of immigrants did, largely having to do with why many immigrant groups might not acculturate in the same way.  For instance, if you look at immigrant groups from Somalia (in Minnesota, primarily) or from Iran (in Los Angeles) you might find the maintenance of much closer contacts with their home land than was possible before innovation in communications.  It is not pre-ordained that this would stop the children of those people from becoming more Americanized, but it's clearly a phenomenon that could be studied.  Just to take a very specific example: the perpetrators of the Boston marathon bombing, particularly, the younger, apparently very Americanized brother.  True, they were born abroad, so it is just one example. 

@ Barbara:  Well ... have it your way.  From my point of view, both my postings were consistent - although in a different voice, for sure.  You're pointing to a distinction without a difference.

This "phenomenon" your talking about has an abundant body of literature, research and analysis that deals with acculturation into American society which has repeated itself over the generations since the early 19th century with each new ethnic group to come to America.

Again, the main factor across ethnic domains seems to be the increase in access to education [especially for women] which in turn gives greater access to economic development, and eventually leads to political power.

Trust me, it only took a generation before you started to see Iranian women waltzing down Rodeo Drive in LA festooned and coiffed very much like any other California girls!

The rapid rise in California of South Asians mainly from India is most telling.  Many of these Indian immigrants were already members of the elite classes in India being highly educated and relatively affluent.  Already today in only a generation or two these folks exert tremendous influence in the Silicon Valley economy.  [My children go to school with these kids.] 

This year successful hi-tech entrepeneur Ro Kahanna, a Democratic candidate for Congress, is challenging an incumbent fellow Democratic Congressman Mike Honda, Peace Corp veteran and a former classroom teacher, who spent his early childhood in a Japanese American internment camp in Colorado during WW2.  Both have educational ties to Stanford.  Only in California!  Our diversity is what makes us strong. 

More to the real underlying issue for this blog discussion is that there are evolutionary, sociological and economic forces that are making the hierarchal structures and practices of the church more and more vestigial organs on the Body of Christ.

Then, maybe you can explain why the custom of arranged marriage persists among Indians in the United States.  It may also be the case that many Iranians behaved that way in Iran -- prior to 1979. 

It isn't only in California, by the way.  The kid that George Allen dissed before he lost his reelection to the Senate in Virginia, "Sid" short for Siddhartha, was a dual computer science and political science at UVA who was volunteering for the Democratic candidate -- his dad was a mortgage loan officer originally from India.  He was on his high school football and chess team.  The kind of kid you can only hope your daughter might bring home some day.

For all of that assimilation, it also appears that assimilation is more successful and more thorough in cases of economic success, whereas, those who are not successful may continue to embrace traditional mores to a degree that did not happen in prior generations of immigration.  That does appear to be the case with some Muslim communities, for instance, Somalis in Minneapolis. 

The phenomenon you are talking about, the education of women bringing dramatic cultural changes occurs regardless of immigration status.  Educated women in India are very different from uneducated women in India.  In that context, you are using the effects of immigration as a proxy for other sociological variables.  To the extent that, for instance, high educational attainment makes it less likely one will continue to adhere to the faith of one's family, it probably doesn't matter whether the adherent is the child of immigrants.  I don't disagree with that.

West and East Oakland, CA, are dotted with little storefront churches with signs and notice boards all in Spanish.  They are in the main a Heinz 57 of Pentecostal groups.  If you go by them on a Sunday day or Wednesday night you can see lots of cars, hear a lot of upbeat music and see younger as well as middle and older ages coming and going.

Then go to one of the FEW parishes in Oakland that "minister" to Hispanics on a Sunday morning and you'll find a church half empty with spectators at a rather pathetic attempt to attract people to a cultural expression is not theirs.

And people wonder why the RCC doesn't keep Hispanics in the US.  I don't.


I hung up too soon.  I have taken to noticing the names of the pastors on these storefronts.  It seems that there is a substantial number of WOMEN leading some of these churches.

When is the mountain of Catholicism going to move to the Mohammed of the Hispanic communities?

An obvious problem is the need for an ordained celibate male priest to minister to parishes.  These storefronts don't need/bother with that.  Does that mean that Catholicism can't compete at this level?  Isn't there an old truism that a will with find a way?

@ Barbara: I am no supporter of arranged marriages - in our western patriarchial societies and cultures.  However I will say, divorces in India are a fraction of what they are in American culture.  Maybe we here in America could learn a few different principles and expectations of marriage from the Indians?

For the record, the fact that there are arranged marriages in Indian Hindu culture does not support your argument.  Arranged marriages are NOT de facto abusive to women - in the Indian cultural context.  There are cultural, ethical and religious differences from American or western marriages that must be considered.

When it came time for a physician friend and my wife's colleague who is from India - a doctor who has a fabulous education and professional training - to get married she travelled back to Delhi to meet her proposed husband and accepted the marriage as arranged by her high caste family.  They  now have a very lovely family.

The key seems to be - something that you seem to agree with me about - education and economic status of women.  All of which brings me back to what I originally argued.

I live in East Oakland and can attest to what you're saying.  One critical question RC churches must address is breaking through the disconnect FOX News Catholics receive about immigrant populations and the reality of their lives.  The FOX-ified brethern are most likely to make immigrants feel unwelcome.

Secondly is the massive wall of ignorance Americans in general have about Mexico and Latin America in general.  And no :"marque dos" does not qualify as cultural literacy.

A third issue is the culture shock many experience coming to the US.  This includes family ties, commercialism, consumerism and a worldview quite different from that of rural immigrants especially..

And then there are the inter-Latino conflicts which play out in East Oakland.  Spanish-speaking Guatemalans vs. Mayan-speaking Guatemalans y mas!



Driven out by the malice, arrogance, uselessness, and irrelevance of the church.

Because there is no "malice, arrogance, uselessness and irrelevance" outside the church?

Who knew. 

I certainly did not.

Using a sinlge word, Latino or Hispanic, to describe Spanish-speaking immigrants and their children and grandchildren probably obfuscates our ability to see what's before us. In NYC, where a significant Spanish-speaking population came from Puerto Rico over many decades and who are not immigrants (they are U.S. citizens), the church seems to have been welcoming, or as welcoming as it is to anyone! Read Sonya Sotomayor's autobio for the praise and criticism about the church from one American of Puerto Rican descent.

Our "Spanglish-speaking" parish has the children and grandchildren of those Puerto Ricans (though many have moved to the suburbs). There are also parishioners from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, etc. Many attend the "English" Mass, though there are two Masses in Spanish.

One of the culture questions facing any parish or Catholic community is which Spanish culture they ought to relate to? And then, how do they see the English-speakiing children of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Are they any different from all the English-speaking children and young adults?

@ Tom Webb:  [I'm assuming that you're responding to both Jim McCrea and/or myself!?!]  You are articulating very much my own experience.

It would be great to put see and hear their voices in Commonweal.

New  York has always catered to Spanish newcomers. Whether from Puerto Rico or South of the Border. They thrive when the majority is Spanis. They have usually stayed separate when part of a white parish.

The conctept of "nones" is peculiar. Maybe it helps to keep those on the rolls who only come for baptism, communion, confirmation and marriage. You might say they are the "nones." They still insist on sending their children to get the sacraments while they do no take them to Eucharist on Sunday. It is more traditional and cultural than religious.  Very strange the whole counting business.


BTW, why doesn't Commonweal give these pages a spell check???

Why are Latinos joining the "nones?"

This is the 22nd comment of the thread and the first 21 have ZERO mentions of Jesus Christ, but a boatload of "Catholic" references.

I wonder if there's a connection in there somewhere.

Joe McDonald, 

The connection is that you were meant to be a Holy Roller.

It is quaint how persistently some people regard demographics and ethnicity as sure indicators of "the future" of the Catholic Church. As if faith isn't a personal phenomenon but rather a calculatable outgrowth of ethnic identity. It's as if all the data about people changing or abandoning the religion of their upbringing goes in one ear and out the other -- and we are left with the naive presumption that the growth of a particular ethnic cohort will automatically yield a new generation of believers.

Welcome to the postmodern world! Being in flux is the new normal.

An interesting possible cause-effect relationship does occur to me in this instance, however, which goes beyond a general flux. Latinos have voted against the Republicans in the last couple of national elections. It may not have been lost on them that they were, therefore, the object of the opprobrium of their bishops for having voted for "the party of death." They may even have been told that they excommunicated themselves by voting, as some priests were wont to say at the time. 

"Arranged marriages are NOT de facto abusive to women - in the Indian cultural context."

I never said they were.  They are, however, evidence of non-assimilation in a key area of life (marriage). 

Also, like I said above, my main point is that you are using immigration as a proxy for education in discussing changes among groups over time.  Which means that educational attainment in (let's say) Mexico would bring about many of the same changes in the Mexican population in Mexico that it does in the Mexican immigrant population in the U.S. -- less religiosity, lower birth rate, a more egalitarian workplace, and so on. 

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