A Pew Research Center study that was released last month has garnered a lot of coverage from both the secular and Catholic press. It found that people who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” now represent 26 percent of the population. That number was just 17 percent 10 years ago.
The study also shows that for the first time, less than half of Hispanics in the United States (47 percent) identify themselves as Catholics.
The study’s results are sobering.
In 2013, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published a study of the church in the United States that stated that “since 1960, 71 percent of the U.S. Catholic population growth has been due to the growth in the number of Hispanics in the U.S. population overall.”
So, while the Catholic Church in the United States is increasingly Hispanic, the Hispanic community in this country is less Catholic than ever.
Those changes aren’t entirely surprising. The huge number of Hispanic immigrants who have moved to the United States during the last several decades explains the crucial role that Hispanics have had in the Catholic population growth.
At the same time, the Hispanic population has experienced changes that explain the diminishing number of immigrants from Latin America who identify as Catholic.
For one, Latin America itself has become less Catholic. According to the nonprofit Latinobarómetro, in 2018 Honduras became the first country in Latin America in which “Protestants now outnumber Catholics (39 percent to 37 percent of the Honduran population).” Twenty years before, 76 percent of Hondurans identified as Catholic.
In general, according to the Latinobarómetro study, just 59 percent of the population in Latin America identify as Catholic, compared with 80 percent in 1995.
Meanwhile, as new generations of Hispanics born in the United States integrate into the American culture, they become part of the secularization trends that the Pew Research study found among the American population at large.
One aspect of that trend may be unique to Latino immigrants. The transmission of the faith from one generation to the next one is always a challenge. But the cultural distance between immigrant parents and their American-born children among Latinos makes the transmission of the faith even harder.
The language and cultural background gap between generations may be a big reason for the growing number of Hispanic-Americans who don’t identify as Catholic anymore.
Traditionally, Catholic schools filled the generational and cultural gap between immigrant Catholics and their children. That was especially true in urban dioceses like Brooklyn, New York, Boston and Chicago.
More often than not, it was in a Catholic school where first-generation Americans of Irish, Italian, Polish or German descent learned how to integrate into the new country while keeping the faith of their parents.
The decimation of Catholic schools during the past 30 to 40 years, however, means that many immigrant communities today don’t have that “cultural bridge” anymore. And we are paying dearly for that loss.
The closest thing to bridges many have now are lay movements like Jornada, Cursillo and the Neocatechumenal Way, where Latino parents and their American-born children share their faith experience. It’s often how a family’s Catholic identity passes from one generation to the next.
But more needs to be done. We must think about the challenges we all face in our more secular world and find new ways to preserve our Catholic faith and announce the good news to the new generations.