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Young Latinos Leave Catholicism for No Religious Affiliation

Sister Maria Parousia leads students during a religious studies class at Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother church in Avondale, Pa.

File photo of Sister Maria Parousia leading students during a religious studies class at Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother church in Avondale, Pa., in 2010. Matt Rourke / AP

When you start talking about religion with a Latino, increasingly that Latino may not be Catholic, but that non-Catholic Latino is almost as likely to be Protestant as to have no affiliation with organized religion.

How old that Latino is might change the odds, although whether the Latino is born in the U.S. or outside the country won’t be as much of an influencing factor.

The latest Pew Research Center religion report finds that more than half, 55 percent, of Latinos nationally are Catholic, down from 67 percent in 2010. In fact, nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults (24 percent) are now former Catholics.

But Latinos aren’t flocking to Protestant religions as they leave Catholicism. About 22 percent of Latinos today are Protestant and about 18 percent consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.

That’s a striking difference from the broader general population, where a growing share are religiously unaffiliated, but there is not similar growth overall in the share that is Protestant, said Jessica Martinez, an author of the Pew study released Tuesday.

“If you are looking at the overall religious profile for the general public, close to half identify as Protestant and one in five identify as Catholic,” Martinez said. “For Hispanics, more than half are Catholic and one in five is Protestant.”

Over time, there is more change in religious affiliation among Latinos under age 50, Martinez said. Latinos who are 18-29 years old are overwhelmingly becoming unaffiliated with a religion, she said.

Among those ages 30-49, there is a similar decline in the share of Catholics, but a corresponding growth in the share of those who are religiously unaffiliated and those who are Protestant. There’s no statistically significant change in Latinos 50 and older.

Martinez said the trend certainly is influenced by changes in U.S. society, but she said the departure from the church is being seen in both U.S.-born and foreign-born Latinos.

“Among the foreign born, if you ask if the change occurred here in the U.S. or before, half say here but almost as many say the change came before coming to the U.S.,” Martinez said.

A recent survey by a Chile-released pollster found that despite the popularity of Pope Francis, Latin Americans’ affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church has been dropping. Meanwhile there has been a rise in evangelism in Latin America.

Although Pew did not connect its research to immigration reform because it does not take political positions, evangelical and Protestant churches increasingly are weighing in on the immigration reform debate and pressing Republicans for movement on legislation. The Catholic Church has long been a supporter of and activist on immigration reform.

Sister Maria Parousia leads students during a religious studies class at Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother church in Avondale, Pa.
File photo at the Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother church in Avondale, Pa., in 2010. A May 2014 Pew study found that nearly one-in-four Hispanics are now former Catholics, with the ranks of religiously unaffiliated growing, especially among young people. Matt Rourke / AP

The trends among Latinos are creating an increasing religious pluralism in the community that may also be associated with religious polarization, Martinez said.

Pew found that Latino evangelicals _ many who identify as Pentecostal or charismatic Protestants _ report higher rates of church attendance than many Hispanic Catholics, but also are involved in other religious activities like Bible study groups and evangelizing. Those without an affiliation, like the general public, have the least attendance.

Political views follow the attendance issue, with evangelical Protestants at the conservative end and the unaffiliated on the left, and Hispanic Catholics falling in between.

Just 16 percent of non-affiliated Latinos identify or lean Republican, versus about a third of evangelical Protestant Hispanics and 21 percent of Catholic Latinos.

On whether abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, 35 percent of secular Hispanics agree, compared to 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 70 percent of evangelical Protestant Latinos, Pew found.

Pew surveyed 5,103 Hispanic adults living in the U.S. The survey was done between May 24 and July 28, 2013 in English and Spanish and on cell and land lines with bilingual interviewers. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.

Pew pointed out that even though the share of Latinos who are Catholic is dropping, Hispanics continue to be a bigger share of U.S. Catholics. One third of all U.S. Catholics were Hispanic in 2013, Pew reported.

Those trends can occur simultaneously because the size of the Hispanic population is growing. If the trends continue, a majority of Catholics in the U.S. could be Hispanic, even though a majority of Hispanics might no longer be Catholic, Pew said.