LOS ANGELES — Buffeted by a rise in converts to other forms of Christianity as well as a falling away from religion entirely, the share of Latino Catholics in the United States continues to decline, a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center found.
The study reconfirmed that the vast majority of Latinos in the U.S. remain Catholic, but it also showed how that stronghold has weakened. Fifty-five percent of the nation’s Latino adults self-identify as Catholic, a drop of 12 percentage points over a three-year period that ended in the summer of 2013, according to Pew.
The decline has been sparked in part by shifts underway in Latin America — where Protestant, evangelical forms of Christianity have made significant inroads over the last several decades. In the U.S., increasing numbers of immigrants either converted to an evangelical church before coming here or made the switch once they arrived.
Also contributing to the shrinking share of Latino Catholics is a broader societal trend: People in the U.S. increasingly are referring to themselves as “unaffiliated,” a broad category that includes those who identify as atheists or agnostics or who simply do not believe in a particular form of religion. The number of unaffiliated Latinos has increased from 10 percent to 18 percent since a similar study in 2010, according to Pew.
Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, said the study highlights the fact that the Catholic Church faces stiff competition in an expanding marketplace of faith.
“Latino Catholics now live in a world of religious pluralism that is relatively new,” he said. “The Latino church in Latin America was one of monopoly for several centuries. Increased options reflect the reality of today.”
Deck added that the study magnifies an urgent need for the Catholic Church to advance reforms pushed by Pope Francis, who is prodding it to become less hierarchical and more concerned with meeting people’s daily needs.