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U.S. Bishops Ponder Plan to Combat Declines in Hispanic Catholicism

Worshippers recite the Lord’s Prayer during a Mass celebrated in honor of the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church Dec. 9 in San Diego. (CNS Photo)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — A few months after a Pew Research Center study showed that the number of U.S. Hispanics who identify as Catholic has drastically dropped over the past decade, the nation’s bishops will vote on a plan to overhaul the U.S. Church’s approach to Hispanic ministry.

Toward the end of the first U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops general assembly public session on June 15, bishops will hear a presentation on a new 10-year “National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry,” which they will then vote on the next morning. It needs a simple majority to pass.

Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director for Hispanic Affairs at the USCCB, previously told The Tablet that if passed, it will mark the first such plan since 1987. He said the plan is a direct result of the four-year V Encuentro process that concluded in 2020, and it places an emphasis on youth and young adults.

“Through that process, it became very clear that the Church in the United States needs to focus as a strong priority on the engagement of Hispanic youth and young adults,” said Aguilera-Titus. 

“I am convinced, and I think the bishops are too, that the Church needs to invest very significantly in their engagement, accompaniment, mentoring, and formation of Hispanic young adults for leadership in Church and society.”

Traditionally more scaled-back than the bishops’ annual fall general assembly, this year’s spring general assembly still has a number of notable agenda items, including presentations and votes on a new plan for the formation of priests and ethical and religious directives for Catholic health care services, a vote on whether to draft a pastoral statement from the U.S. bishops addressing persons with disabilities in the life of the Church, updates on the National Eucharistic Revival and the ongoing Synod on Synodality, and Archbishop Timothy Broglio’s first address as the conference’s president.

The topic of directives for Catholic health care services has especially garnered attention ahead of the general assembly because it could limit Catholic hospitals’ ability to provide gender transition care, as outlined by a doctrinal note the bishops released in March.

As for the pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry, it will be presented by Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda of Detroit, chair of the USCCB Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, and Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose, California, who leads the Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs.

Bishop Cantú did not respond to a Tablet request for comment.

The potential plan comes at a time when Church leaders recognize its importance as the number of U.S. Hispanics who identify as Catholics continues to decline, according to data from a recent Pew study. The study, published mid-April, found that 43% of Latino adults in the U.S. identify as Catholic, down from 67% in 2010, and almost half of young Latinos are not affiliated with any religion at all.

Further, while Catholicism remains the dominant religion among Latinos in the U.S., the trends associated with the data show a population distancing itself from the faith and becoming more and more religiously unaffiliated.

The study, “Among U.S. Latinos, Catholicism Continues to Decline but Is Still the Largest Faith,” found that about 30% of Latinos now identify as religiously unaffiliated, up from 10% in 2010. That figure is even higher for the U.S. Hispanics ages 18 to 29 who were born in the U.S., about half of whom (49%) now identify as religiously unaffiliated.

The estimated number of Hispanics in the U.S., according to the 2021 Census, is about 62.5 million, about 31 million of whom are Catholic, which is a bit higher percentage than the Pew study shows.

Aguilera-Titus said the U.S. bishops are aware of the decline of U.S. Hispanics who identify as Catholic, especially for youth and young adults, which is part of the reason that’s where their focus lies. He declined to divulge too many of the proposed pastoral plan’s details, but said one focus is increasing the number of parishes with Hispanic ministry programs.

Aguilera-Titus noted that about 4,500 of roughly 16,5000 parishes in the U.S. have some sort of Hispanic ministry, but more than half of those 4,500 don’t have specific ways of engaging youth and young adults.

“I think what the bishops want to look at is how to make sure that Hispanic youth and young adults are engaged so they feel welcomed and that they can develop a sense of belonging — not be the faith of their parents but be their own faith,” he said. “But if you don’t have strong youth and young adult ministry at the parish level, then you are not in a position to engage them, and therefore they will just fade away.”

Another priority, Aguilera-Titus added, is leadership formation of youth and young adults “so that they will not only be receiving the sacraments or catechesis, but so that they will be leaders in the Church and society and then hopefully engage in professional lay ministry, and of course promote vocations to the priesthood, and so on.”

Aguilera-Titus was the national director of the V Encuentro process, of which the theme was missionary discipleship. He said that will be a crucial part of this plan, too.

“The Hispanic/Latino community has learned how to go out to the peripheries through the Encuentro process. This needs to become just a way of being Church,” he explained.

“When you are engaging youth and young adults, not just Hispanics but anybody, they need to better understand that they are missionary disciples and that they have a calling … to share the goodness of Christ with everybody, especially those who are most in need of hearing that goodness and feel the embrace of the church,” he said.