Martin E. Marty
“This is huge.” Emma Green interrupts her own reporting (May 7, 2014) on desertions from Roman Catholic heritage and affiliation. Before her self-interruptive gasp she had begun her report: “According to a new Pew study, over the past three years, the proportion of Hispanic-Americans who call themselves Catholics has dropped by 12 percentage points.”
I’ll spare you the easily available statistics from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Pew Charitable Trust (see “Sources” below for access to both of these “reliables” among pollsters and commentators). Green summarizes them in non-pollsters’ prose: the new figures suggest “the difference between two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics being part of the Church, versus a little more than half.” The slump is most dramatic—no surprise here!—among younger Catholics.
Who cares, and who should care? Catholic leaders do, and must. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who speaks for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (quoted by Michael Paulson, check "Sources") spells out what measures leadership is taking to slow the trends.
But Sister Mary Ann adds, on the ‘huge’ trend: “It is scary to consider that religious relativism may be the greatest threat that exists to the increasingly important Hispanic Catholic community.” She sees young Hispanics along with others among the young following excitements, including non-Catholic religious versions, until “you move from your parents’ church to another to no church at all.”
Joseph Goodman in his “Public Religion” commentary accents, (see "Sources") along with the move to “other faiths," the “drifting away” to the “nones,” the “unaffilliateds,” and not merely to the Evangelical, Pentecostal, and other Christian churches, including (12% of them) to “mainline Protestant,” though only 9% had been raised in the mainline.
Back to “Who cares?” Political observers note the trends, since the Catholic voters and interest groups are coveted targets by politically partisan recruiters. Will Catholic political weight count as much in battles over whether the Affordable Care Act is “anti-Catholic” when there are fewer Catholics around?
Who else cares? Once upon a time Protestants might have relished observing and reporting on declines in any Catholic affiliation-sector. No more. No matter what you may hear from ‘interest groups,” any anti-Catholicism which focuses on Catholicism as a religious faith is muted, vague, unorganized and rare.
Instead, church-going Protestants mourn the Hispanic and other Catholic diminishments, both because they share the basics of faith and because strong Catholic participation signals to non-Catholics the importance of church-going and observance. A full Catholic parking lot down the street no doubt helped inspire non-Catholics to follow Catholic examples.
Many Catholics are looking for and hoping for the “Pope Francis Effect” to have its effect on attendance at mass and other Catholic parish activities. To date this effect has failed to materialize, despite the well-noted and oft-applauded public actions and messages from the popular pope.
For now, forward-looking Catholics are taking lessons from Catholic “parishes that do work,” and from Pentecostals-Evangelicals etc. who offer pastoral care and focus on communal activities, though none of the latter can relax either in the times of “relativism,” “drifting away,” and other challenges.
Goodman, Joseph. “The Rise of Religiously Unaffiliated Hispanics.” Public Religion Research Institute, October 17, 2013. http://publicreligion.org/2013/10/the-rise-of-religiously-unaffiliated-hispanics/.
Public Religion Research Institute. “Past & Present Religious Affiliation Among Hispanics.” Accessed May 10, 2014. http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/101613.GOTW_Hispanic_Affiliation2.jpg.
Green, Emma. “The Catholic Church Isn’t Doing So Well With Hispanic-Americans: Why the U.S. Church’s largest population is quickly converting away from the faith.” The Atlantic, May 7, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/05/the-catholic-church-isnt-doing-great-with-hispanic-americans/361709/.
Pew Research Center. “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States: Nearly One-in-Four Latinos Are Former Catholics.” May 7, 2014. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2014/05/Latinos-and-Religion-05-06-full-report-final.pdf. NOTE: This report, based on the trustworthy data collected by the highly-respected Pew Research Center, reflects the findings from a study conducted among a national sample of 5,103 Hispanic adults.
Paulson, Michael. “Even as U.S. Hispanics Lift Catholicism, Many Are Leaving the Church Behind.” The New York Times, May 7, 2014, The Upshot. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/08/upshot/even-as-hispanics-lift-catholicism-theyre-leaving-it.html.
Walsh, Mary Ann. “Good News: Many Hispanic Catholics. Challenge: To Meet Their Spiritual Needs.” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops blog, May 5, 2014. http://usccbmedia.blogspot.com/2014/05/good-news-many-hispanic-catholics.html.
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Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.