Latinizing American Christianity: Pluralism, Pentecostalism and the Future of American Catholicism

By Espinosa, Gaston | Conscience, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Latinizing American Christianity: Pluralism, Pentecostalism and the Future of American Catholicism


Espinosa, Gaston, Conscience


The findings in this essay are based on the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life research project, directed and managed by Virgilio Elizondo of the University of Notre Dame, Jesse Miranda of Vanguard University and Gaston Espinosa of Claremont McKenna College. This four-year study (1999-2003) was funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. It fielded the HCAPL national survey, one of the largest and most comprehensive bilingual surveys in history on Latino religions and politics. The HCAPL surveyed 2,060 Latinos across the U.S.

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MAJOR DEBATE HAS erupted over Latino religious affiliation in the United States. Sociologist Andrew Greeley of the University of Chicago has argued that the Catholic church is experiencing mass defections of Latino Catholics to Evangelical and mainline Protestantism. The Hispanic Churches in American Public Life (HCAPL) national survey refines and revises this finding and argues that although Roman Catholicism is witnessing mass defections, it is still experiencing unprecedented numerical growth.

Catholic defections are benefiting not only Evangelicals and mainline Protestants, but also Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and other world religions and metaphysical traditions. In short, the Latino religious marketplace, although predominantly Christian, is increasingly denominationally and religiously pluralistic. The day has long since passed when one could assume that to be Latino was to be Roman Catholic.

THE CRISIS OF LATINO CATHOLIC RELIGIOUS SWITCHING

Andrew Greeley ignited the crisis over mass defections when he wrote in America in 1989 that 60,000 Latinos were defecting every year from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism. Drawing upon the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, he estimated that r million Latinos had left the Catholic church in the United States between 1972 and 1989. Nine years later he wrote in the same periodical that these defections had grown worse, with as many as 600,000 Latinos leaving the church annually. These defections resulted in the Latino Catholic population declining from 77 percent in 1972-1974 to 70 percent by the mid-1990s, he reported.

Greeley lamented that one out of seven Hispanics had left Catholicism in less than a quarter of a century and that if this "hemorrhaging" continued, half of American Hispanics would not be Catholic in 25 years. Far from being a sporadic episode in the story of American Catholicism, he warned, this would continue. He called these mass defections "an ecclesiastical failure of unprecedented proportions" and the "worst defection in the history of the Catholic church in the United States." He ended his lament by chastising the Catholic hierarchy for its "dereliction of duty" and for its inability or unwillingness to stem the tide of these "cataclysmic" defections. Greeley's trumpet blast did not attract a single public response or outcry from a cardinal, archbishop, bishop, priest or clergyman working with Hispanics, he claimed. He found this remarkable and indicative of the deep-seated problem facing American Catholicism.

The HCAPL survey in the fall of 2000 confirmed and revised some of Greeley's findings. The survey found that 70 percent of all Latino adults self-identified as Roman Catholic--the exact figure that Greeley reported in 1997. However, it would be inaccurate to conclude that the Latino Catholic population has remained relatively stable, because the General Social Survey captured the attitudes of primarily second- and third-generation English-speaking Latinos--those most likely to be Protestant. The actual percentage of Latinos that were Roman Catholic in 1997 was probably around 74 percent--the percentage of immigrants that self-identified as Roman Catholic in the HCAPL survey. Further evidence for mass defections includes the fact that the percentage of Latino Catholics drops from 74 percent among the first generation to 62 percent by the third. …

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