JULY 21, 2003
Martin E. Marty
The twenty-two home-delivered newspapers and many magazines that greeted me after my week-long island retreat, offered scores of opportunities for sighting religious news. I'll bypass them and return to a topic Sightings has treated several times before: numbering Hispanic Catholics in the United States.
Why return to the subject? First, if our reporting and commenting on dramatic population shifts of Latino Catholics to Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and the like has been inaccurate, we owe corrections. Second, we have regarded the infusion of Hispanic Catholics into the preexistent Catholic ethnic mix as the main reason why a weakened Catholicism holds its own statistically with a 25 percent share of "religious preferences" in the "American pie." Third, having never discovered a major ethnic shift in American religion, this one looks like it could be a first. Thus, most African-Americans remain Baptist/Methodist/Pentecostal; people of Scottish or Scandinavian descent are more likely to lean toward Presbyterianism and Lutheranism rather than desert to Catholicism; Eastern Orthodox keep preferring Orthodoxy; and Jews are Jews, despite all evangelical efforts to convert them.
So what if many millions of Hispanic, especially Mexican-American, Catholics are switching allegiance from Catholicism? Big news. My hawing and hemming results from my having read "Correction, Si; Defection, No" by the respected Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo from Brooklyn College in the Jesuit weekly AMERICA (July 7-14). He does not minimize the lure of Pentecostalism or fervent evangelical movements as they relate to Catholic communicant losses, but he shows how others maximize them.
With 34 million Hispanics making up the largest "minority" in America, where they line up religiously is a fateful issue. He says that "Religious Identification Among Hispanics in the United States 2001" offers "evidence of a correction to Catholic membership among Hispanics rather than a defection" to Protestant denominations. Catholic bishops have been running scared as they see Hispanic Catholics heading over the hill to Pentecostalism. Stevens-Arroyo reports on a poll of 50,281 households in 48 states, extracting 3,000 Hispanics from the whole sample. After cross checking with other polls the analysts deduce that the Protestant share of the Hispanic adult population held steady, moving from 26 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2001. Pentecostal shares increased only fractionally, from a bit more than 3 percent to a bit less than 4 percent of the population.
What is happening, warns Stevens-Arroyo, is not church-hopping and church-shopping so much as atrophy; the Catholic share of this population sector dropped from 66 percent in 1990 to 57 percent in 2001. He admits that surveying Hispanic populations is a problem of "gargantuan proportions," but counsels people to make efforts. His own deduction? The denomination to which drifting Catholics drift is labeled "no religion." Many on the exit ramp remain "cultural Catholics," but many of the young just simply disappear. Some were too lightly associated with the church from the first to be considered "defectors." But they are gone, and Stevens-Arroyo calls for new strategies.
Editor's Note: For more information on the survey, please see the Program for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinos (PARAL) at Brooklyn College.