Nanci Palacios attends Sunday Mass at a Dover church where the congregation mainly consists of older Catholics and children.
When the priest invites the youngest parishioners to come forward for a special blessing at the end, she said, few are still there to receive it.
“The church almost becomes empty,” Palacios said.
While Catholicism remains the largest religious group among Latinos in the United States, its share of those worshippers has dropped over the past decade from 67% to 43%, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. The study shows that young Hispanics are less Catholic and more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than older Latinos.
A coincidence? Not necessarily.
Traditional churches reject abortion and gay marriage, in particular. Many feel torn between their religious beliefs and their personal identity. Others have criticized the Catholic Church for being slow to address instances of clerical sex abuse and for not doing enough to promote justice for survivors.
Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the Catholic Church faces a difficult challenge in retaining its Latino members. Not only may the beliefs of younger generations sway them to be less interested in practicing a faith or following a religion, he said, but leaders aren’t enacting significant reforms that would make it more appealing to young people.
“The biggest challenge is among Latino Millennials and Generation Z,” Chesnut said. “Many of whom are alienated by the church’s stance on sex and gender-related issues, such as clerical sex abuse, the exclusion of openly gay men from the priesthood, the refusal to recognize same-sex marriage, and the exclusion of women from the priesthood.”
The Pew study shows that slightly less than half of Latino youths between 18 and 29 identify as unaffiliated. But among older Latinos, only 1 in 5 is not religiously affiliated. The analysis found that the majority of these Hispanics, aged 50 or older, were born outside of the U.S.
“One important aspect of this dynamic is Latinos leaving Catholicism,” said Besheer Mohamed, one of the study’s authors. He said Latinos born and raised in the U.S. are more likely than Hispanic immigrants to disaffiliate from religion completely, rather than switching between faiths.
The study shows that Latinos who are religiously unaffiliated or do not identify with any specific faith has increased to 30% from 10% in 2010.
The Diocese of St. Petersburg said it’s difficult to determine whether the national findings accurately reflect the local reality or if the data has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The diocese encompasses Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties.
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“Locally, some of our parishes have experienced growth in the number of Latino worshippers. Others have seen declines,” the diocese said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. “The Diocese is committed to reaching out to all Hispanics, along with people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds, to invite them to encounter the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.”
The survey of 3,029 Latinos in the U.S. was conducted over a year until August 2022. The results were released on April 13.
According to the Pew Research Center, Protestants make up the second-largest religious group among Hispanics in the U.S., accounting for 21% of the population, a percentage that has remained stable since 2010, the center said.
Jens Manuel Krogstad, one of the study’s authors, said the fact that U.S.-born Latinos are especially likely not to identify as Catholic “reflects, in part, their relative youth.”
“Latinos born in the U.S. are significantly younger than Latino immigrants, and young people generally are less likely to affiliate with a religion,” Krogstad said.
Palacios, who immigrated with her parents from Mexico when she was 6, works as deputy director of Faith in Florida, a nonprofit that helps minority communities in Dover. She said many young people still identify as Catholic even if they disagree with some of the church’s teachings and don’t attend Mass regularly.
“I wouldn’t distance myself from the church,” she said, “because that’s where I feel the most connected to my faith.”