Catholicism in Latin America on the decline

From Mexico to Argentina, Latin America was overwhelmingly Catholic for centuries, with more than 90 percent of the region’s inhabitants self-identifying as Catholic within the past century. Though the Church continues to grow in Latin America, which today has 40 percent of the world’s Catholics, the region is becoming less Catholic as higher percentages of people convert to Protestantism, most notably Pentecostalism, or stop practicing religion all together.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that the Catholic Church has experienced net losses in nearly all of the 18 countries and one U.S. territory — Puerto Rico — in Latin America and the Caribbean. Whereas 90 percent of Latin America’s population was Catholic in 1960, today about 69 percent of adults across the region now identify as Catholic.

“Globalization is having an impact everywhere. We talk about the American marketplace, but now it’s a global marketplace of different faiths,” said Mark Gray, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

U.S. comparisons

What is happening in Latin America mirrors some trends among Latinos in the United States. Latinos make up 34 percent of Catholics in the United States, and they are the fastest growing sector in the U.S. Church, but second and third-generation Latinos in the United States are becoming less religious, a trend that also occurred with other predominantly Catholic ethnic immigrant groups such as Italians and Irish.

Like their counterparts in Latin America, significant percentages of Latinos in the United States also are increasingly drawn to Pentecostal churches that have made inroads by offering small fervent faith communities that emphasize the moral life and a personal, emotional connection to God.

“They appeal to the senses, to feelings, not so much to reason, because we all know if we were to reason this out, there is only one Church, and it’s the Catholic Church,” said Cristofer Pereyra, the director of the Hispanic Mission Office in the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona.

The Pentecostal churches in the United States and Latin America are also aggressive in proselytizing Catholics, said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, the assistant director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church.

“Their main target is Hispanic Catholics,” said Aguilera-Titus, who focuses on Hispanic Affairs and noted that several lay ecclesial movements within the Catholic Church, including the Charismatic Renewal, are responding to Catholics’ interests in cultivating a personal relationship with God. Aguilera-Titus also said the Church has to reclaim its missionary call.

“The Catholic Church needs to be able and willing to be more missionary, to bring the Good News to people where they are at, instead of passively waiting for them,” he said.

Pereyra, an immigrant from Peru, told Our Sunday Visitor that the Pew Research Center survey also found that Latin Americans overall are still conservative in their moral values, whereas Hispanic Catholics in the United States are increasingly adopting a secular and liberal outlook.

“This tells me the culture here in the United States is so powerful, so influential,” Pereyra said. “As soon as Hispanics and new immigrants arrive in the United States, the Church has a very precious window to help them grow in their faith and walk in Christ. If we don’t take advantage of it, if we just take them for granted, they will assimilate into the bad habits of American culture, and many of them might leave the Church.”

No longer ‘just assumed’

Hosffman Ospino, an assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, told OSV that Catholicism “was just assumed in Latin America for many decades, perhaps for centuries.”

“The new reality has taught the Catholic Church that it can’t take people for granted,” said Ospino, the principal investigator for the National Study of Catholic Parishes in the United States, a joint effort between Boston College and CARA. “You just can’t build a church and expect people to show up. You have to work just as hard as the other denominations that are trying to attract believers to their door.”

According to the Pew survey, almost one in five Latin Americans describe themselves as Protestant, although just one in 10 Latin Americans were raised in those churches. In most of the countries surveyed, at least one-third of Protestants were raised in the Catholic Church, and half or more said they were baptized as Catholics.

Pastoral strategies needed

The Pew survey noted some other interesting factors, including statistics that indicate that Protestant Latin Americans attend Church more frequently, read the Scriptures and pray more often than Catholics. Catholics, the survey said, are less morally opposed to abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, divorce and contraception. About 60 percent of Protestants surveyed in Latin America said they were looking for a church that “places greater importance on living a moral life.”

“That finding is very interesting because some in our Church have taught that in order to be more welcoming, we might have to water down our emphasis on morality, but this shows that is certainly not the case,” Pereyra said. “It’s time for us to rekindle a sense of right and wrong. It might be a good time to go back to our roots in terms of emphasizing the need to live a righteous life in front of God.”

Carmen F. Aguinaco, the president of the Chicago-based National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry, told OSV that the Church in the United States needs to develop effective pastoral strategies and outreach programs to Hispanic Catholics, especially among youths and young adult professionals who may not identify with the traditional practices of their parents or grandparents. “Hispanics want to feel welcome in the churches in the United States. We should be going out to them. I don’t know that we are doing much to attract them really. We’re still struggling and grappling with this issue,” Aguinaco said.

A ‘rebalancing of forces’

Ospino described the shifting religious landscape in Latin America as a “rebalancing of forces,” noting that the region, as it has opened up to influences from Western Europe and the United States, is different from when Protestantism was virtually banned and Catholicism was the de facto state religion.

“It was an anomaly to have a continent that was entirely Catholic,” Ospino said. “With that said, I don’t think that Latin America will become a non-Catholic continent in the near future. The Church is also engaged in continental affairs and in the New Evangelization. The Church is responding, and it will remain a dominant force, but we will not go back to a time when 95 percent of the people were Catholic.”

Though the region is becoming less of a Catholic monolith, Gray noted that the Church is growing in Latin America. In 1980, the region had 334 million Catholics, 26,753 parishes and 30,576 priests. In 2012, Latin America had 512 million Catholics, 35,799 parishes, and 49,459 priests, according to CARA. “People in the United States think in terms of a vocations crisis,” Gray said. “But it’s a completely different picture in Latin America. Because of population growth, the Church continues to grow and attract vocations. There are more parishes, there are more priests. The Church is still growing in Latin America.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.