By Valerie Schmalz
Latinos are on track to become a majority in the U.S. Catholic Church — already more than 50 percent of American Catholics younger than 25 are Latino. Thirty-five percent of Catholics were Latino in the 2000 census, and Hispanics comprise 71 percent of Catholic population growth since 1960, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The transformation — some 500 years after a Spanish priest celebrated the first Mass in North America at St. Augustine, Fla. — is bringing a surge in charismatic and similar lay apostolate movements, as well as contributing to a revival of Marian and other devotions that had fallen into disuse after the Second Vatican Council, observers say.
At the same time, few Hispanics enroll their children in Catholic schools and millions are poor. Many of them are undocumented. Further, the unresolved immigration debate exposes racism even within the Church, said a leading Hispanic prelate. He says, nevertheless, that the greatest threat to faith is the lure of a secularist society that actively discourages public expression of faith.
“The Latin presence is a blessing for this country,” San Antonio Archbishop José H. Gomez, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity, told Our Sunday Visitor. “It is really a blessing that somehow, for whatever economic or cultural reasons, the Latinos are present in the Catholic Church in the United States. They will renew the spirituality and the faith in the United States.”
The 2010 census will pinpoint when Hispanics become a majority in the U.S. Church, whether it is 10 or 15 years or sooner, said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, the bishops’ national coordinator for Hispanic ministry. Six in 10 Latinos are U.S. born, he said. Already, African-, Asian- and Latin American Catholics combined outnumber those of European descent in the United States.
“Hispanics have children at a greater rate than any other group,” whether U.S. or foreign-born, Aguilera-Titus said.
About 70 percent of the 47 million Hispanics in the United States are Catholic. They reside in virtually every diocese in the country, according to the bishops’ conference. More than 4,000 of the country’s 18,500 parishes have a Mass in Spanish and every year the number increases, said Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity.
Forty bishops, 28 of them active, are Hispanic, according to the bishops’ website, which also notes that, “over the past few years, 15 percent of all new priests ordained in the United States have been of Hispanic/Latino descent” and that Hispanics constitute 25 percent of all laypeople engaged in diocesan ministry.
While a study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found 64 percent of Hispanics favor a “woman’s right to choose” abortion, Archbishop Gomez said he believes most Latinos remain pro-life. Sixty-four percent of Latino Catholics leaned or were Democrats in 2008, while 58 percent of non-Latino Catholics trended or were Democrats, so Mark Gray, CARA’s director of Catholic polls, said. “As the Catholic population grows, it may start to look like it did during the time of [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and [John F. Kennedy],” he said.
At a symposium this summer at Boston College on the present and future of Catholic Hispanic ministry, Archbishop Gomez also reported that 10 percent to 12 percent of American Hispanics now say they are without religion, while more than 20 percent are Protestant. Both of those statistics would have been unthinkable two decades ago, when nearly 100 percent of Latinos were Catholic.
He noted effective proselytizing of evangelical Protestants, but said the lure of a secular society that aggressively disparages Catholic values is a greater force.
“The real challenge we have for the Hispanic community is the secular society in which we live. Secularism is very attractive in a country where you can live very comfortably without any need of God,” Archbishop Gomez told OSV.
The Church needs to evangelize Hispanics, particularly poor and working-class immigrants whose knowledge of their faith is often spotty because they came from rural areas in Mexico, El Salvador or elsewhere, where they may have only seen a priest and attended Mass once a month because of a shortage of priests, Archbishop Gomez said.
Tying sacramental preparation for children to parental education, and utilizing media, particularly Spanish-language Catholic radio, can help, he said.
Just 3 percent of Latino children attend Catholic schools, Deck said, and “we know that leaders are formed through education.” While nationally 21 percent of Latinos drop out before high school graduation, at the seven Catholic high schools in San Antonio, 98 percent graduated, Archbishop Gomez said. A study scheduled to be released Dec. 12 by the University of Notre Dame includes creative strategies for increasing Latino Catholic school attendance that both Deck and Archbishop Gomez said hold promise.
A 2007 study by the Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that more than half of Hispanic Catholics identify themselves as charismatics, compared with only an eighth of non-Hispanic Catholics. While many Latino Catholics remain committed to the Church, the study found that many have experienced occurrences typical of spirit-filled or renewalist movements.
“It is a Catholic faith that is lot more explicit, that can be seen and touched and smelled because it permeates culture,” said Aguilera-Titus.
Each parish has a mission and novena to its name saint in Mexico, for instance, said Archbishop Gomez, and the Christmas novena of Las Posadas involves the whole community.
Said Aguilera-Titus: “Hispanics have a sense, not only in their mind but in their heart, of God. Hispanics want to feel God present in their lives.”
Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor.
The population center of the world Church will have shifted to the Americas by the end of this decade, according to Church and population statistics.
While the Church is growing in Africa and Asia, Africa accounts for just 14 percent of Catholics globally, while Asia has 11 percent. “In contrast, according to the Catholic Church’s Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE) 2007, there were more than 477 million Catholics residing in Latin American countries,” said Mark Gray, research associate and director of Catholic polls for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, on his blog Nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com. This represents 42 percent of the world Catholic population of 1.147 billion in 2007, Gray said, but added that by the end of 2009, more than 49 percent of the Catholic population will reside in the Western Hemisphere.
“It often goes unnoticed that the proportion of Catholics in the world residing in Latin America is larger than the proportion of Catholics who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino/a in the United States,” Gray said on his blog. “Catholics in Latin America will likely become a majority of the global Catholic population before a majority of Catholics in the United States self-identify as Hispanic or Latino/a.”