November 15, 2019
In what some see as a landmark decision, the American Catholic bishops, during their Fall meeting this week in Baltimore, have elected Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He is the first Latino to hold the highest leadership position in the American Catholic Church. The the 67-year-old Mexican-born bishop has been a strong advocate of immigrant rights, and public supporter for newcomers as they face growing restrictions by the Department of Homeland Security and other US federal agencies.
For many years the US Catholic bishops have looked to Latinos/Latinas to maintain a strong Catholic presence in the United States. Now however, they are confronted with a new US Catholic development: Latinos/Latinas, in growing numbers, are saying “Adiós” to the Catholic Church.
Ten years ago, according to the Pew Research Center, 57% of US Catholics were Latino/Latina. Today that figure is 47%, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2019 report.
Curiously, we see as well a rise in the number of American Latinos/Latinas who are becoming Muslims. In 2009, only 1 percent of Muslims identified as Latino/Latina. By 2018, it was 7 percent. The American Muslim Association of North America, based in North Miami, says heavily Latino/Latina South Florida in particular is home to a rising number of Latino/Latina Muslims.
Why the Latino exodus?
In part, the decline of Catholics among Latinos/Latinas reflects religious changes underway in Latin America, where evangelical churches have been gaining adherents in a region that historically has been overwhelmingly Catholic. It also reflects religious changes taking place in the United States, where the Catholic Church has an ongoing problem of loosing adherents through religious switching/conversion, and, especially among younger people, through the growth of the religiously unaffiliated.
Latinos/Latinas leaving Catholicism have also reacted against a perceived ongoing clerical sexual abuse problem, a belief that most priests are gay, and a growing religious impersonalization as parishes, due to a shortage of priests and falling parish membership, become larger amalgamations of closed but formerly open churches. Larger churches handle crowds but do not create personalized communities. Latinos/Latinas are drawn to smaller born-again, Pentecostal, or evangelical Protestant communities where people know each other and form networks of friends. They seek as well a personal and direct connection with God, without the interference of an institution or clergy.
The phenomenon of Latino/Latina departure covers a broad spectrum. The recent changes in religious affiliation are broad-based, occurring among men and women, those born in the United States and those born abroad, and those who have attended college as well as those with less formal education. The changes are also occurring among Latinos/Latinas of Mexican origin (the largest single origin group) and those with other origins.
The departure changes, however, occur primarily among Latino/Latina adults under the age of 50. Among Latinos aged 18-29, virtually all movement has been away from Catholicism and toward no religious affiliation: joining the “nones.” Among those aged 30-49, the movement has been away from Catholicism and toward evangelical Protestantism or no religious affiliation. Among Latinos/Latinas ages 50 and older, the changes in religious identity are not statistically significant.
Latinos/Latinas, like other Catholics, are also showing and reacting to a kind of Catholic fatigue. They are tired of weakened Catholic credibility, tired of the slow pace of change about issues of women in ministry, sexual abuse, and now a fierce polarization between supporters of Pope Francis and those, like the US Cardinal Raymond Burke, who are convinced Francis is a dangerous heretic destroying orthodox belief. Since the late 1970s, conservative Catholics and evangelicals have also become allies in the culture war that has shaped American partisan politics. (Since the 1970s non-Latino/Latina white Catholics have voted majority Republican while a majority of Latino/Latina Catholics have voted Democrat.)
Yes I call it “Catholic fatigue.” A contemporary fatigue-generating example: In their November 12th meeting, the US bishops have voted to approve close to 300 new hymn texts for the Liturgy of the Hours. The US bishops must now receive confirmation from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which can take months or a year to process. Hymn texts are certainly a pressing issue these days…
Among the other issues considered on November 12th, there was much discussion about new materials to complement “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the USCCB’s long-standing guide to help Catholics form their consciences in public life, including voting. Pondering the 2020 election, the bishops voted to approve the new version, including an addition that abortion is the preeminent social issue of our time. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the outgoing president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, observed that global warming is an important issue but not urgent. Fortunately for him, he doesn’t live in Venice.
Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles urged the bishops to promote social media in their dioceses as one way to re-link young people with the Catholic Church. He said the church is losing young people in greater numbers and must face the challenges of how to get the religiously unaffiliated young people, back to the Catholic Church. He presented a three-minute video on the issue; and his presentation led to a discussion that lasted for more than an hour. Bishops from across the country are in agreement that the issue is of great concern. They shared ideas for bringing young people back to the church, which primarily involved more and better catechism instruction and an increased devotion to the Virgin Mary.
As a friend wrote this week, “The ultra conservative men and their followers are about to drive me from the church, along with clericalism and the pedo scandal. I am not able to set these basic things aside and still be a practicing Catholic. I love my friends in the church, but my own fragile spirit has taken a beating for years.The little time I have left on this earth, must be spent in joy filled peace.”
And so, we continue on in our faith journeys.