Not so long ago, one of my bishop friends slapped me on the back and told me to “brush up on my Spanish” because “Latinos are the future of the Catholic Church in America.”
My friend had a point, because right now most young Roman Catholics in the United States are Latinos. My friend can’t see the other side of the picture, however, because Latinos are now leaving the U.S. Catholic Church at a striking rate. Especially the young.
For years the Catholic Church, in the United States and in Latin America, has been losing members to evangelical Protestantism, and, especially, to Pentecostal and other charismatic churches. Now however, particularly in the United States, another form of faith-switching is underway: More American Latinos are leaving the Catholic Church and becoming religiously unaffiliated. A strange scenario: a rising percentage of American Catholics are Latino while a falling percentage of American Latinos are Catholic.
Nearly one-quarter of Latinos in the United States are former Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center. By comparison, about 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics.
The religious affiliation of Latinos has great significance for researchers (like me) and others interested in the future of religion in the United States, because Latinos make up such a large and growing part of the U.S. population.
By 2030 more than 22% of the U.S. population will be Latino. By 2050, 29% will be Latino and 47% “white” with the percentage of “whites” going down quickly after that…. The times will certainly be “a changing.”
What I call the “Catholic eclipse,” will be striking among Latinos. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 % of U.S. Latinos identified themselves as Catholic in 2013, down from 67 percent in 2010. About 22 % of Latinos today identify themselves as Protestant — including 16 percent who say they are evangelical or born-again — and 18 % say they are “unaffiliated.”
Religiously “unaffiliated” Americans are a growing trend especially among younger Americans, who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” (If I were a bishop I would not denigrate them but spend a lot of my time and energy listening to these “unaffiliated.” They are our contemporary God-seekers and tomorrow’s “believers.”)
The Pew researchers find the rise in the number of Latinos, who say they are unaffiliated, particularly strong among Latinos under age 30. But this under-age-thirty unaffiliated trend is equally strong among “white” American Catholics as well.
The Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project has found that four out of five Catholics who have left the church and haven’t joined another church did so before the age of 24.
So what does all of this mean? I would say the Roman Catholic institutional church has a major Roman Catholic theological problem on its hands, that cannot be ignored by simply complaining that people are becoming “increasingly relativistic and secularized.”
Theology is faith seeking understanding.
A lot of people whom I call “God-seekers” are indeed seeking understanding for their faith and their “spiritual” searching. They are asking for bread. Far too often the institution — at all levels — still seems to excel in giving them lifeless old stones.