As America becomes more and more Hispanic, the Catholic Church is changing—but not in the way you might think.
According to a new Pew study, over the past three years, the proportion of Hispanic-Americans who call themselves Catholics has dropped by 12 percentage points. This is huge: It’s the difference between two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics being part of the Church, versus a little more than half. The slump has been even bigger among the young and the educated: In 2010, 60 percent of Hispanic Millennials said they were Catholic, and now only 45 percent do. Among those with a high-school or college degree, the share of Catholics has dropped by 14 percentage points.
This is a bad sign for the Church. Since the new pope was elected in the spring of 2013, commentators have been eagerly speculating about the “Francis effect,” or the possibility that the popular pontiff might attract more people to the flock. But Hispanics make up the biggest population of Catholics in America, and if they continue leaving the Church at this rate, it could be particularly problematic. Take a look at the Church’s losses among Hispanics in the U.S. since 2010, across age groups, education levels, and countries of origin:
What’s behind these huge changes in the Church? Researchers pointed to a few factors. Part of it may have to do with the growing influence of evangelicals in Latin America over the last century—in 1910, 90 percent of people living there were Catholic, but by 2010, that had declined to 72 percent. Some of it can also be attributed to broader trends in the U.S.; for example, about a third of all American Millennials say they don’t identify with any particular religion, and roughly the same proportion of Hispanic-Americans aged 18-29 feel this way.
But the bigger story is that Hispanics are leaving the Church, period. Some of those who left were born here, and others were born abroad; some were from Mexico, but many were from other countries. Today, almost a quarter of Hispanics in America used to be Catholic—they were raised in the Church, but since then, they have joined a different denomination or stopped practicing a religion all together. Most people who have left the Church are now unaffiliated, but Protestants—particularly evangelicals—have captured a significant proportion of converts. Almost half of Hispanic-American who are currently Protestant were raised as Catholics.
Among all Hispanic-Americans who have left Catholicism, most people said they just drifted away from the Church or stopped believing in Church teachings. But people who converted to Protestant denominations were almost as likely to say they left because “they found a congregation that reaches out and helps its members more” than the Church—roughly half said this was true.