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Pew: In Latin America, Catholics See Sharp Drop Amid Religious Shifts

Latin America has nearly 40 percent of the world’s Catholic population, but a new study finds a sharp drop in Catholic identification in the region.
Image: A Catholic priest distributes Holy Communion to the congregation as a green light is lit inside St. Teresa of Avila church in Monterrey
A Catholic priest distributes Holy Communion to the congregation as a green light is lit inside St. Teresa of Avila church in Monterrey, February 17, 2013. STRINGER/MEXICO / Reuters

There’s little dispute that Latin America is a stronghold of Catholicism, home to more than 425 million Catholics, nearly 40 percent of the world’s total Catholic population.

But is Catholicism on the wane in Latin America?

A major new Pew Research Center report out Thursday finds identification with Catholicism dropping sharply in the region. According to the survey, 69 percent of adults across Latin America identify as Catholic, down from highs of 90 percent or more for most of the 20th century.

The report notes that that the Catholic Church experienced net losses as many Latin Americans joined evangelical Protestant churches or rejected organized religion outright.

The Pew report examines religious affiliations, beliefs and practices in 18 Latin American countries and Puerto Rico. It surveyed more than 30,000 adults in late 2013 and early 2014.

Here’s a few other takeaways from the report:

-- Survey respondents said the most common reason for leaving Catholicism and converting to Protestantism is that they were looking for a more personal connection to God.

--- Evangelization efforts seem to be working. According to the survey, more than half of those who switched to Protestantism said their new church reached out to them.

--- Some major survey results mirror trends found among U.S. Hispanics. For example, a 2013 Pew Research poll found nearly a quarter of Hispanic adults in the U.S. were raised Catholic but have since left the church. And like their counterparts in Latin America, many U.S. Hispanics have left Catholicism for Protestantism.

--- Catholics in Latin America tend to be less morally opposed than Protestants on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, artificial means of birth control and sex outside of marriage.

-- Former Catholics in Latin America are more skeptical of Pope Francis. Current Catholics, however, overwhelmingly view the pontiff favorably and consider his papacy a major change for the church.