Thursday, May 8, 2014

More Callenges for Hispanic Ministry in the U.S.

The title of an article in today's New York Times says it all: "Even as U.S. Hispanics Lift Catholicism, Many Are Leaving the Church Behind." (The article by Michael Paulson can be found at: )

The article is based on the latest poll by the Pew Research Center, which "finds that 55 percent of Hispanics in the United States identified themselves as Catholic in 2013, down from 67 percent in 2010. About 22 percent of Hispanics identify as Protestant - including 16 percent who say they are evangelical or born-again - and 18 percent say they are unaffiliated."

Two things about this study stand out - or rather jump out! The first, as noted by a senior researcher at Pew, is the surprising size of the decline in so short a period - from 67% in 2010 to only 55% just three years later. It could, of course, be an anomaly. But relying on statistical anomalies does not a satisfactory pastoral strategy make. And God help us all if this is the trend!

The second thing that stands out from this study is how "Hispanics in the United States are leaving religion as they assimilate to a more broadly secular culture." The defection of a significant portion of Hispanic Catholics to various Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and movements has long been noted - and not just in the U.S. but even more troublingly in Latin American itself. As for the pattern here, all one has to do is stroll around a Latino neighborhood in a large American city and count up all the storefront churches, as well as the more mainstream churches which advertise services in Spanish. Of course, the fact that a problem has long been noted does not mean it has been adequately responded it. Obviously, it has not. But perhaps even more problematic is the increasing evidence that  a notable number of younger Hispanic Catholics are, as Paulson puts it, assimilating "to a more broadly secular culture by becoming religiously unaffiliated, becoming part of the growing group religious researchers label "the nones."

Now just yesterday, I commented in this space about a recent Boston College study that focused on parishes which have Hispanic ministry. There was much that was very positive in that report, which highlights the vitality and vibrancy of such parishes, and which Paulson summarizes as "showing that American Hispanic Catholics have higher participation rates in sacramental activities ...but lower participation rates in other  aspects of parish life than do other American Catholics." One of those areas of lower participation, which strikes me as particularly problematic, is in relation to Catholic schools. This particular factor - and the  diminished participation of American Catholics overall in Catholic schools - is I suspect not unrelated to this larger issue of so many younger Catholics (both Hispanic and non-Hispanic) becoming unaffiliated.
As I noted yesterday, the Boston College study points out that 93% of under-18 Hispanics are American born. Hence the study's consequential conclusion: "Much of the Catholic experience in the country during the next few decades will be significantly shaped by how the Church reaches out to this last group and whether young Hispanic in this age bracket, at least those growing up in Catholic households, decide to self-identify as Catholic."  The Pew poll simply confirms that there is much more to be done to meet the distinctive pastoral needs of younger, American-born, English-speaking Hispanic populations, who experience some of the same challenges to faith that their non-Hispanic peers are also experiencing. Likewise, it is hard to imagine a seriously successful transmission of an informed, active, and committed Catholic faith to the next generation without a strong network of Catholic schools. Nor should we ever underestimate the energy a vibrant parish school brings to the ongoing daily life of a parish.

In any case, any serious U.S. effort at "New Evangelization" must confront the challenge of increasing religious non-affiliation among younger Americans - and the disquieting spread of that phenomenon among the largely young Latino Catholic population.


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