Catholic Hispanics Defect

The Chicago media is full of stories about a Latino candidate for mayor, and keep Latinos on our minds. We decided to go national/international.

By Martin E. Marty|March 23, 2015

“Firing Up America” could refer to any number of incendiary subjects, and the cover illustration on The Economist (March 14) doesn’t help much in sorting: it shows an American flag whose stripes are strung-together red peppers. The subtitle alerts readers to something worth sighting, “A Special Report on America’s Latinos.”

The Chicago media is full of stories about a Latino candidate for mayor, and keep Latinos on our minds. We decided to go national/international:

Whoever observes religion in American public life has good reason to focus on Latinos. Certainly Roman Catholicism, traditional in the homeland of immigrants from Central and South America and the Caribbean, is most observed, since this complex group is on the move.

Moving to where? The Economist report begins with the note that "as many as 600,000 American Latinos ‘defect’…to Protestant churches each year.”  In two years the number of defectors, if they chose to stick together, could match in size many standard-brand Protestant denominations. But they disperse.

[Aside: Sixty years ago our family fostered and received a brother and sister of Latino culture, and we quite effortlessly “Lutheranized” them. No surge of “converts” followed them.]

Most departing Roman Catholics choose to go elsewhere. The Economist writers know that not all departers defect, but remain faithfully Catholic, doing some adapting and improvising along the way, enlivening Catholic life in many places.

But the magazine is more interested in what everyone agrees is the larger story. Millions find their new religious home in various versions of evangelical Pentecostalism, which is also challenging Roman Catholic dominance in Central and South America.

My interest in ethnicity in religion led me to notice, also up to sixty years ago, that ethnic groups, as groups, rarely make religious moves. This was most true in the centuries when the main migrations to the United States came from Europe. We knew that Poles and Italians were Catholic, “Anglos” were Anglican, Scandinavians and Germans were Lutheran etc.

There were always trickles from one body to another. Inter-marriage has been the great blender, also in Jewish-and-anybody-else families. They often picked up what most would consider non-creedal traits.

One partner in a Lutheran-Catholic wedding, of which there have been many in Chicago, told me that the explanation of differences in her case was condensed to: “Oh, you’re joining the Lutherans. Aren’t they the group that always sings all the verses of long songs?”

Still in a culture where religions are perceived as matters of choice, the Economist assesses that Pentecostalism offers many Catholics more immediacy, a sense of a direct and energizing contact with God. The article also comments on Catholic parishes where Latinos do thrive, because the Catholic church provides a link to “home,” be it in rites and practices of Guatemala or Brazil or elsewhere.

What happens if the “home” in Ireland, Poland, and Spain—classic strongholds—weakens further?

The director of an Office of the New Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was hoping that Pope Francis, an Argentinian, would help staunch the flow from Rome. Asked whether the direction of the flow was toward Protestantism, he responded, “I couldn’t care less about Protestants. That’s not the enemy. The enemy is secularism.”

Any “New Evangelizer” can also tell you that another main competitor to the church exists. If the Los Angeles priest had had occasion to add another nuance, he’d mention not only “secularism,” but also “indifference.” Defectors don’t sing all the verses of long Christian songs in either of those spheres.

Thanks to the Economist for this spotlight signaling a decisive change in the American religious complex in a time of drift and “defection."


“Pick and Mix: Even in religion, America offers more choice.” Economist, March 14, 2015, Faith.

“Even as U.S. Hispanics Lift Catholicism, Many Are Leaving the Church Behind.” New York Times, May 7, 2014, TheUpshot.

“The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States.” Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life, May 7, 2014, Polling and Analysis.  

Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud.

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.