Growing number of Hispanics in U.S. leave Catholic Church

LOS ANGELES–Both Miriam Alvarez and Gloria Muniz were raised Roman Catholic. Today, Ms. Alvarez is a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, while Ms. Muniz hasn’t been to any church in years.

The two women represent distinct religious trends among Hispanics in the U.S.: going from Catholic to evangelical Christian and from Catholic to religiously unaffiliated, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

Since the 1990s, the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. has counted on Hispanics, many of them arrivals in a massive immigration wave, to bolster its shrinking ranks. The study to be released Wednesday by Pew, a nonpartisan think tank, suggests a religious churning in the fast-growing population group, the country’s second-largest.

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The share of Hispanics who are Catholics in the U.S. has dropped by 12 percentage points in just four years to 55%, the study found. Nearly one in four Hispanic adults in the U.S. is now a “former” Catholic, it found. Meanwhile, a greater share of them now identify as religiously unaffiliated or Protestant.

The trends mirror what has been occurring in Mexico, Brazil and other Latin American countries, where evangelical Christian denominations, such as Pentecostalism, have gained ground at the expense of Catholicism. They also reflect broader shifts taking place in the U.S., where Catholicism has been losing followers and the share of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated has been swelling.

Hispanics are still significantly more Catholic and less Protestant than the U.S. population as a whole, the Pew study says. About 48% of the U.S. general public is Protestant, compared with 22% of Hispanics, while only 22% of the general population is Catholic. The unaffiliated share of the two groups is similar, 18% and 20%, respectively.

Half of the nation’s 35.4 million Hispanic adults were born in another country. About 30% of these immigrants say they have changed religious affiliation, the Pew study says, with an equal split between those who report this occurred before and after they settled in the U.S.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in response to the study that the church’s ministry to Hispanics is crucial and it is working strategically to increase the number of Hispanic seminarians and priests as well as the number of Hispanics in Catholic schools.

Pastor Luis Linan Olivera, a Peruvian immigrant, helped establish Seventh-Day Adventist churches catering to Spanish-speaking immigrants in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia before taking the helm of a large church in a Latino enclave in Hollywood three years ago. Once an altar boy, Mr. Linan says that many of his flock are also former Catholics.

The more participatory nature of evangelical Christianity appeals to congregants like Mrs. Alvarez. The Mexican immigrant says that “praying here with my brethren has helped me solve problems.” For instance, she believes it has helped cure the asthma that afflicted her 7-year-old son, Darwin. Now, each week, she brings Darwin to church to participate in a children’s program that teaches him about creation, nature and Christ, according to instructor Flor de Maria Zelaya.

Membership at the church has doubled to about 300 families since 2011, says the pastor, and several other evangelical churches–some of them just tiny rooms with a few rows of chairs–dot the area.

As immigration slows, a growing share of U.S. Hispanics are native-born. Many, like Ms. Muniz, have become religiously unaffiliated, according to the study. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Ms. Muniz says she was baptized, had a first communion and attended mass regularly. But, as an adult, “I’m not into following a religion,” says the mother of four. “My kids don’t know anything about it.”

To be sure, even though the percentage of Hispanics who identify as Catholics in the U.S. has been declining, Hispanics continue to account for an increasingly large share of all U.S. Catholics–about one-third of the total in 2013–thanks to the growth of the Latino population. Hispanics account for about 17% of the U.S. population, up from 12% at the turn of the century.

“If such trends continue, a day could come when a majority of Catholics in the U.S. will be Hispanic even if the majority of Hispanics might no longer be Catholic,” says Alan Cooperman, Pew’s religion-research director.

The Pew study is based on an analysis of a survey conducted between May and July last year among a national sample of 5,103 Hispanic adults, in both English and Spanish. Pew used surveys conducted in 2006 and 2010 to track trends and make comparisons.