The National Catholic Review
Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo

It scarcely needs repeating that the future of Catholicism in the United States will be shaped by Hispanics, who at 34 million are already the most numerous minority in the country and constitute a majority of Catholics in many dioceses. The religious affiliation of these Hispanics will largely determine which churches grow and which ones wither in the 21st-century United States. There is some comfort to be taken, then, from the fact that Religious Identification Among Hispanics in the United States, 2001, the most comprehensive analysis published to date, offers evidence of a correction to Catholic membership among Hispanics rather than of a defection into Pentecostal and Protestant denominations.

Defection to other churches by Latinos and Latinas (I use these terms and Hispanic interchangeably) has long been a concern of Catholic leaders. Archbishop Patricio Flores of San Antonio, Tex., addressed the issue directly at the 1972 Hispanic Pastoral Encounter, admonishing his fellow prelates that a bishop reluctant to share pastoral authority with Hispanic leadership already shares it with Protestant ministers who have taken away so many of his people. If one were to interpret defection as a zero-sum game, any growth in the number of Latino Protestants would be a loss of Latino Catholics. Unfortunately, such a monodimensional view of defection has been fueled over the years by uncritical analysis and anecdotal generalizations that made predictions about all Hispanics without scrutinizing important sociological variations among different groups and regions. As recently as the autumn 2002, the U.S. bishops reechoed fears of defection to sects in a pastoral document charting Hispanic ministry, although this concern ignored findings to the contrary from 1997.

The most recent report, Religious Identification, which was issued on Dec. 12, 2002, by the Program for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinos/as (PARAL), based at Brooklyn College in New York, trumps the fragmented and partial data previously used to profile Hispanic defection. Drawing from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2001), a telephone survey of 50,281 households in 48 states, researchers extracted the data using a nationwide sample of nearly 3,000 Hispanics. These findings were compared with similar data from the National Survey of Religious Identification (N.S.R.I.), which interviewed over 113,000 persons in 1990. Because of the size of the sample, its national scope and incorporation of data from the U.S. census of 2000, the ARIS/PARAL report offers a more reliable picture of Hispanic religious identification in the United States than other surveys to date.

Hispanics are not leaving Catholicism for the Pentecostal or Protestant churches. The Protestant share of the Hispanic adult population held steady (26 percent in 1990 and 25 percent in 2001), while Pentecostals increased only fractionally, from a little more than 3 percent to a little less than 4 percent. But even though Catholic Latinos and Latinas did not defect to other denominations, ARIS/PARAL reports that the Catholic share of the nation’s Hispanic population has dropped from 66 percent in 1990 to 57 percent.

One can expect these numbers to be challenged. Every survey of Hispanics faces a methodological challenge of gargantuan proportions. Among the foreign-born, Spanish-speaking only population in the United States, many refuse to participate because they have reason to fear government connections to a survey. ARIS accounted for this difficult-to-survey group by weighting the responses of the foreign-born Hispanics who speak English so that their attitudes are attributed to the other foreign-born who speak only Spanish. This is an acceptable statistical remedy, but it does increase the familiar plus or minus percentage range. ARIS took a more conservative approach than another recent survey that weighted the foreign-born based on an over-sample of groups in the only Spanish-speaking category. As a result of these different approaches, ARIS reports that foreign-born Hispanics are less likely to be Catholic (54 percent) than the U.S.-born (59 percent), while the Pew Hispanic Center has a huge favorable difference between foreign-born Catholics (76 percent) and the U.S.-born (59 percent). Because the questions about religious identification asked by these surveys are not alike, a Solomonic choice to divide the difference will not produce a reliable result. Until a new survey is conducted incorporating an improved methodology, the ARIS/PARAL numbers offer the advantage of having asked about religious identification without steering the respondent into the categories of Protestant, Catholic or Jew.

If the Catholic Hispanics from 1990 did not go to the Protestant churches, where did they go? The ARIS/PARAL report shows that the fastest growing religious group among Hispanics was of those adults who profess no religion. Their percentages rose from 6 percent in 1990 to 13 percent in 2001. Although it would be erroneous to suppose that most Hispanics declaring no religion in 2001 had been part of the 66 percent who reported belonging to Roman Catholicism in 1990, the appearance of 7 percent in the no-religion column is clearly linked to the loss of 9 percent from the Catholic column.

Moreover, it may be that those of no religion were scarcely missed, since the overall number of Latinos/as grew by 54 percent between 1990 and 2000. This shrink-while-we’re-growing phenomenon results from a general demographic change that increases the number of Hispanic Catholic adults from 9.6 million in 1990 to almost 13.1 million in 2001, even as the percentage of the Catholic share was dropping. The same principle holds for the Protestant and Pentecostal churches that saw their numbers swell, even if their percentage of all Hispanics stayed stagnant over the past 10 years. A pastor surveying a church packed with Hispanics on a Sunday may doubt that there are more Hispanics of no religion, yet all the churches are challenged by this rapidly growing new religious grouping.

Although it may seem contradictory to claim that those with no religion constitute a religious group, the ARIS/PARAL report shows that an overwhelming percentage of those with no religion believe in God (85 percent) and nearly three out of four believe in miracles and attention by God to them and their personal needs. While half of these adults consider themselves secular in outlook, most of the other half consider themselves religious. A majority of those who profess no religion are far from atheism.

The ARIS/PARAL report shows there are about an equal number of foreign-born and U.S.-born Hispanics in this category. Even allowing for the weighting issue discussed above, the emergence of this form of religious identification merits examination. A third have never considered themselves to have a religion, so they clearly escape the accusation of defection. Hispanic no-religionists do seem significantly young, with 35 percent under the age of 30 years, as contrasted with the general U.S. population in which those with no religion have only 12 percent of their numbers under 30. The relative youth of the no-religionists probably explains why they have fewer children than Hispanics professing religion. They also tend (68 percent) to marry persons with no religion. But when Hispanic no-religionists marry Catholics, the children are raised as Catholic 80 percent of the timetwice as high as the percentage of children raised Protestant (40 percent) when the partner of the no-religionist is Protestant. It would be a mistake to lump all of the no-religionists into the same socio-economic categories.

The scope of the ARIS/PARAL report makes it possible to examine Hispanic religious identity in all 48 continental states instead of watering down the sample for a few metropolitan areas where Hispanics are concentrated. The difference between the findings of this report and others that show higher percentages of Catholic membership appears to be related to a major influx of Hispanics into many new states that previously had few Hispanics.

The mushrooming Latino population in diaspora states affects the category of no-religionists. Hispanics living in the West South Central region, for instance, which includes Texas, are the least likely to belong to this no-religion category (10 percent) and the most likely to identify as Roman Catholics (63 percent). On the other hand, Hispanics in the West North Central part of the country (Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas) are more likely to be of no religion (30 percent) than Protestant (23 percent). If we recognize that churches in these states have not responded at the pace of the demographic explosion, then one reason that Hispanics in these states reported no membership in any particular religion may be that there are as yet few Latino faith communities to which they might belong.

Like most reliable social science surveys, the ARIS/PARAL can be enriched by comparison with other worthwhile research. The rapidly growing number of Hispanic believers who belong to no religion may be explained by changes in pastoral practice. As observed by Mary Beth Celio, director of research for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, the establishment of the new Code of Canon Law during the 1980’s has reformed centuries-old practices that date back to the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Previously, Catholic teaching encountered the objections of the Protestant Reformation by emphasizing that the sacraments did not depend upon an individual’s level of appreciation for validity. Sacraments were efficacious ex opere operato according to Trent and its catechisms. Immigrants to the United States from Catholic countries throughout the 19th and into the 20th century could rely on this doctrinal teaching so as to use reception of the sacraments as a key to religious identity. Although church attendance and knowledge of the faith may have been thin, a Catholic culture provided a space for claiming church membership.

The new Code of Canon Law establishes a category of deferred sacraments. Children are not to be baptized or receive first holy Communion and couples are not to be married in the church unless there is a contractual form of association with the parish before conferring the sacraments. The Catholic survey conducted by Dr. Celio and her associates in 2000 reported that parishes with Hispanics are more likely to contact adults in sacramental preparation courses (21.4 percent) than parishes without Hispanics (14.2 percent). But while her report states that deferring the sacrament often becomes a means of attracting Hispanics to more active participation, it does not tell us what happens to those Hispanics who decline to attend the sacramental preparation classes.

These observations are not intended as a criticism of current Roman Catholic theology and sacramental practice, but as a reminder that policies often produce unintended consequences. In this case, it seems legitimate to ask if Hispanics always understand the reasons when they are told that baptism has been deferred because they have not been active members of the parish or are unwilling to take courses in religious education as preparation. Without the sacraments that constitute rites of passage, cultural Catholicism cannot survive. This might explain why Hispanics say they have no religion, even when they believe in God, in miracles and attend church services at important moments of life and the liturgical year. In short, the cultural Catholicism that so richly served generations of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland and the like has been ripped away from Latinos and Latinas.

The ARIS/PARAL report offers well-substantiated findings to church leadership rather than pastoral judgments such as these, which are only my own. It appears, however, that raising the standards for Catholic membership since 1985 has helped reverse a previous trend for Hispanic Catholics to join Protestant churches. That policy, however, may have created a new problem for Hispanics who have defined their religious identity by cultural Catholicism. Instead of thinking of them as having defected, it is probably better to consider these Hispanics as corrected by a change in church policy. Correction rather than defection may also be a cause for pastoral optimism. When taking into account the relative youth of this group and the diaspora to new areas, there may be a temporary quality to the condition of no religion for Hispanics. In any case, it would appear that the increasing diversity among U.S. Hispanics calls for more variation in approaches to evangelization and pastoral care.

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is the director of the PARAL study, the Program for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinos at Brooklyn College in New YorkCity.