WASHINGTON –– Two reports on Latinos and religion released the first week of May paint a picture of the U.S. Catholic Church at a potentially precarious point with its fastest-growing demographic.
One risk: Hispanics will soon constitute a majority of the U.S. church, but the National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry suggests outreach to that population has not kept up with the growth.
Another risk highlighted by a Pew Research Center report on Latinos and religious practice is a 12 percent drop in just four years in the number of Latinos who describe themselves as Catholic. In 2010, 67 percent of U.S. Hispanics told Pew they were Catholic, while in 2013, 55 percent said they were Catholic.
“We need to get our act together as a church,” said the parish studies’ principal author, Hosffman Ospino, Boston College assistant professor of theology and ministry, in a May 6 interview with Catholic News Service. While he repeatedly described the shifting demographics as an exciting time, he said the church must stop thinking of different groups as “them.”
“We need to come to terms with our diversity,” he said. “The Catholic Church needs to start thinking of whatever happens to Latinos not as a ‘Latino issue’ but as something that happens to all of us.”
The study of 5,100 Latinos for Pew, interviewed in summer of 2013, found about 24 percent consider themselves “former” Catholics. The largest declines came among foreign-born Latinos who are Catholic — down by 15 percent in four years — and people under 50, with declines of 14 and 15 percent for the age brackets 30-49 and 18-29, respectively.
By comparison, Pew found net gains in the number of Latinos who describe themselves as Protestant, up by 8 percent, or “unaffiliated,” up by 10 percent. The reason cited most frequently for leaving the Catholic Church, especially among those who are not affiliated with a church, was that they “just drifted away.”
The Catholic parishes study, conducted by Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, found that Hispanic ministry offerings aren’t keeping up with the rate at which Latinos are becoming the majority in the U.S. church.
Hispanics account for 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics, and 55 percent of Catholics under the age of 30. The Boston College report counted just under a quarter of U.S. parishes as providing some sort of ministry to Hispanics, whether an organized program or Masses in Spanish.
In an interview about the implications of the data, Ospino said that with Hispanics accounting for 55 percent of all U.S. Catholics under age 30, the time is past for treating Hispanics as a subgroup.
“We need to shift the language,” he said. “In many parts of the country to speak about Hispanic Catholics is to speak about the majority of the church.” Given that, he called it shocking that only a quarter of parishes have some kind of ministry directed at the population.
He referenced one archdiocese with 300,000 Latinos and just 40 parishes offering any kind of ministry to Hispanics. That raises the questions: “Is that enough? Are we ghettoizing people?” he asked.
Ospino said he gets the sense that the assumption among parts of the largely white Catholic population is that Latinos will mimic previous generations of immigrants from Europe, who assimilated into the existing Catholic culture.
But the majority of the U.S. Hispanic population is already several generations beyond “immigrant,” Ospino noted, and many come from families whose roots in what is now the United States predate the border with Mexico that was established in the 19th century.
Instead of expecting assimilation, Catholics ought to be thinking of the shift to a majority Hispanic church as “an opportunity to be Catholic in new ways,” Ospino said, with no culture necessarily dominant over others. “It’s naive to think either part is going to assimilate into the other.”
The alternatives available to people who don’t readily find a home in a Catholic parish worries some, as was noted at an event hosted by Boston College to launch its study May 5. Conversation for a while centered around the observation that today there are many options for people who start out as Catholics but who might feel unwelcome in a Catholic parish and, as the Pew study suggests, go to another denomination or leave religion altogether.
Data released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops shows about 15 percent of the 477 men being ordained priests in the U.S. this year are Hispanic, representing less than half the percentage of Hispanics in the church, although it shows a gradual increase in recent decades.
Ospino said he was optimistic about the U.S. church remaining strong with its new majority of Hispanics. He said part of the gap in what ministry is available lies simply in the youth of the Hispanic population.
“We’re not going to see a huge upsurge in the number of people in leadership for 20 years,” simply for reasons of age, he said, adding that now is the time to invest in resources to train the next generation of leaders.
That means a sense of solidarity is necessary, said Ospino, particularly in terms of financial support for the developing population by the more-established parts of the church.
“From the middle to the end of the 20th century, the U.S. Catholic Church thrived as a middle-class church,” he said. From a largely immigrant church in the previous century, its members came to have financial and political clout as strong as the predominant Protestant culture of previous centuries, Ospino said.
Now, the Hispanic population is still developing the widespread level of education that leads to financial and political power. It’s coming, he said, but in the meantime there are two choices: “Either the more established community extends a hand in solidarity and lifts up the Hispanic church … or this gap keeps growing, with the wealthy, mostly white Catholic Church shrinking, in fact it might disappear.”