When most Hispanics were Catholic…
The trend is clear. As the Hispanic population grows quickly and steadily in the United States, fewer Hispanics self-identify with Roman Catholicism. There are nearly 63 million Hispanic people in our country.
On April 13, the Pew Research Center updated its estimates reporting that about 43% of all Hispanic adults in the U.S. self-identify as Catholic. Just a decade ago, in 2010, that estimate was 67%. The drop is rather breathtaking.
Yes, there was a time within very recent memory when most Hispanics were Catholic. That is not the case today. It is unlikely that the trend will reverse in the foreseeable future.
Contrary to popular belief, most Hispanics who stop self-identifying as Catholic do not join Protestant communities or other religious traditions. A good number do, however, and there is a sense that they do so searching for something that they did not find in the religion of their childhood, or at least the institution that mediates it.
The biggest phenomenon affecting Hispanics in America is this: they are religiously disaffiliating, which has become a de facto highway into secularization. About 30% of Hispanic adults are religiously unaffiliated; most of them are former Catholics – another breathtaking piece of information.
The last half a century has been a roller-coaster for the Catholic Church in the U.S. vis-à-vis the Hispanic experience. Hispanics went from being about 10% of the Catholic population to becoming the major source of demographic vitality for our Church. Today, nearly half of all Catholics in the country are Hispanic.
During the 1980s and 1990s, immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean was the main engine of growth for the Hispanic Catholic population. Since millions and millions of immigrants from these regions in the continent were Catholic, it was natural that their presence would tilt the demographic scales of U.S. Catholicism.
When most Hispanics were Catholic, pastoral leaders at all levels, from bishops to catechetical leaders and pastors in parishes, viewed this population as a breath of fresh air, injecting new life into faith communities and structures. That’s still the case in our day.
But the positive reception of this breath of fresh air has not always been of one mind. There have been pockets of resistance among some Catholics who see the fast growth of Hispanics as a threat. Others seem to have adopted a “let’s wait and see,” attitude.
Resistance and inaction to embracing the blessing of a young, dynamic and profoundly Catholic population, and integrating it in all our Catholic structures, including parishes, schools and organizations, has led to the lack of appropriate investment in the evangelization and retention of millions of Hispanic Catholics.
When most Hispanics were Catholic, we took them for granted. That is perhaps the best assessment I can offer at this point, and after dedicating much of my career as a theologian studying Hispanic Catholicism.
The fact that only four in 10 Hispanic adults self-identify as Catholic changes the rules and calls for fresher conversations. Most Hispanic children in the United States born henceforth will not grow up in Catholic households.
Hispanics are a lifeline to the vitality of U.S. Catholicism, especially as the Euro-American Catholic population ages and declines numerically, and the Catholic presence dwindles in parts of the country where Catholic life strongly defined local cultures.
Recently the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry research team, under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, estimated that in 2021 nearly 31 million Hispanic Catholics lived in our country. That’s a sign of hope. Let’s not take them for granted.
Hosffman Ospino is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.