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More U.S. Latinos shift and drift outside the Catholic Church

First Published      Last Updated May 09 2014 08:40 pm

Washington • A new report on the "Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos" reads very much like a biography of Fernando Alcantar.

Like six in 10 Hispanic Catholics in the U.S., he was born in Mexico, where "you are Catholic as much as you are Mexican. You like jalapenos and worship the Virgin of Guadalupe," he said.

But once he moved to California after high school, his faith journey diverged — and derailed. Today, Alcantar, 36 calls himself a humanist.

The Pew survey released Wednesday is subtitled: "Nearly One in Four Latinos are former Catholics." And Alcantar is one of them.

Hispanics are still a pillar of American Catholicism — fully a third of the U.S. church today. And their share is climbing with the overall growth of the Hispanic population.

More than half (55 percent) of the nation's estimated 19.6 million Hispanics identify as Catholic, according to Pew's report, which uses "Hispanic" and "Latino" interchangeably.

But that's 12 percentage points below 2010, when 67 percent of Latinos surveyed said they were Catholic, the survey found.

"Everyone was surprised in some way by the findings, the first time the size of the decline in Hispanic Catholics has been measured in depth," said Pew research associate Jessica Hamar Martínez.

"If both [immigration and shifting] trends continue," the survey said, "a day could come when a majority of Catholics in the United States will be Hispanic, even though the majority of Hispanics might no longer be Catholic."

According to the new survey:

• Nearly one in three Hispanics (32 percent) said they no longer belong to the major religious tradition in which they were reared (not including changes among Protestant denominations). Among foreign-born Hispanics, half switched faiths before arriving in the United States.

• 18 percent of Hispanics today claim no religious identity, up from 10 percent in 2010. "People were expecting the growth in evangelicals among former Catholics but the rise of the unaffiliated was unexpected," said senior researcher Cary Funk.

• 22 percent of Hispanics now say they are Protestant. This includes 16 percent who call themselves evangelical, up from 12 percent in 2010.

• The movement out of the Catholic Church is led by the young and middle-aged. Fewer than half (45 percent) of Hispanics under age 30 are Catholic. And four in 10 (37 percent) of those young Catholics say they can imagine leaving the Catholic Church someday.

• Most (seven in 10) Hispanics who left the church for any new direction left before age 24.

That sounds familiar to Alcantar, of El Centro, Calif. He left Catholicism at 18 and Christianity altogether by the time he was 32. Two of his three siblings are agnostic; only one sister remains devoutly Catholic.

Among ex-Catholics who turned to another faith, Pew found many have turned to the enthusiastic worship of Pentecostal and charismatic or "renewalist" faiths that celebrate gifts of the Holy Spirit such as divine healing, receiving direct revelation from God and "a strong sense of God's direct, often miraculous, role in everyday life."

That rang true for Alcantar's parents. His mother, Teresa Foucar, is now an evangelical Protestant, and his father became a deacon with an Assemblies of God church.

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Latino Catholics differ from evangelicals — and from the church

The Pew Research Center’s look at “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States” also examined their beliefs, behavior and views on social issues. It finds that, beyond the church doors in the lives of the faithful, there are distinct differences between Hispanic evangelicals and Hispanic Catholics:

Catholics are less likely than evangelicals to:

» Attend services weekly — Catholic, 40 percent; evangelical, 71 percent

» Pray daily — Catholic, 61 percent; evangelical, 84 percent

» Take a literal view of the Bible — Catholic, 45 percent; evangelical, 63 percent

» Think abortion should be illegal in all/most cases — Catholic, 54 percent; evangelical, 70 percent

» Believe people can be possessed by spirits — Catholic, 56 percent; evangelical, 80 percent

» Identify or lean Republican — Catholic, 21 percent; evangelical, 30 percent

And evangelicals are less likely than Catholics to:

» Favor allowing same-sex marriage — evangelical, 19 percent; Catholic, 49 percent

» Pray to saints — evangelical, 9 percent; Catholic, 70 percent

» Prefer a bigger government with more services — evangelical, 62 percent; Catholic, 72 percent

» Favor church leaders speaking out on political, social issues — Catholic, 69 percent; evangelical, 61 percent

Hispanic Catholics are also at odds with their church on several key points of doctrine and tradition. They say the church should allow:

» Catholics to use birth control — 72 percent

» Catholics to divorce — 64 percent

» Priests to get married — 59 percent

» Women to become priests — 55 percent