Catholicism has a famed strong grip on Hispanic communities—and it is loosening. A Gallup poll released earlier this week found that the number of Hispanics who identify as Catholic in the US dropped from 58% to 54% between 2008 and 2012. Over the same four-year period, Hispanics who identify as Protestant rose slightly, from 27% to 28%.
This demographic shift reflects a trend happening in Latin America. According to the polling service Latinobarómetro, the number of Catholic Hispanics in Latin America dropped 11% from 1996 to 2010, while the number of evangelicals, often a synonym for Protestants in Latin America, rose 9%.
Gallup also found that Hispanic Protestants are far more religious than both their Catholic and non-Latino church brothers and sisters. Nearly two-thirds of Protestant Hispanics say they are “very religious.” Just 43% of Catholic Hispanics identify that strongly, a few points higher that the national average of 40% for all religious Americans. That gap is consistent across age groups.
It would be too simple to call the trend the Hispanic flight from Catholicism. Many Latino Catholics, especially in Latin America, also identify with evangelical-like and Pentecostal-like practices and incorporate them into the Catholic mass. In the United States, Latino Catholics often attend evangelical services because they are conducted in Spanish and incorporate cultural elements—like food and dance—from their home countries. “Most Latinos are becoming Protestants within their ethnic identity and not as part of an assimilation process,” explains Juan Francisco Martínez, professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, in his book Los Protestantes.
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Latinos still represent a vibrant future for the Catholic Church. Nearly half of all Catholics under 40 in the United States are Hispanic. The top two Catholic countries in the world are Hispanic ones—Brazil has 127 million Catholics, and Mexico, 96 million. As the cardinals prepare to choose the Pope Emeritus’ successor, the argument for a Latino pope only grows stronger.