Young Hispanics Leaving Catholic Church for Protestant Faith

PHOTO: Bishop Richard Malone, bishop of Buffalo, speaks to Catholics after distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday during Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo, N.Y., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013.

The Catholic Church can't seem to catch a break lately. According to a new Gallup poll, young Latinos are shedding the Catholic faith of their parents and some are turning to Protestant alternatives with fervor.

Most Hispanics are still Catholic, the poll found, but they are significantly less religious than their Protestant peers. And Hispanic Protestants are not only more religious, they're far more religious than American Protestants in general. The same does not hold true for Catholics.

Predictably, younger Hispanics in both groups are less religious than older generations. But even at the 18-29 age level, the youngest cohort in Gallup's poll, more than half of Hispanic Protestants consider themselves very religious, compared with just one third of Hispanic Catholics the same age.

The Catholic Church has struggled to bring in young members in the United States. Less than half of U.S. Hispanics between 18 and 29 identify as Catholic, compared with the 60+ percent of Hispanics older than 50.

Protestants, on the other hand, have seemingly done a better job of attracting young Latinos. As Gallup points out, there "is no shortfall of Protestants among young Hispanics compared with older age groups: The Protestant percentage is almost identical across all age groups."

Young Latinos are joining Protestant, especially evangelical, churches for a variety of reasons. According to an NPR report, young Protestant Latinos prefer the more boisterous, musical services and less structured environment to more rigid Catholic masses.

One young man told NPR he wanted a personal relationship with God instead of having to rely on a priest as an intermediary.

Protestant churches have also done a good job of reaching out to Latino youth, particularly from poverty- and gang-ridden neighborhoods. They offer youth groups, bilingual services in English and Spanish, social activities and a place to hang out.

One line of the NPR report is telling. It says of one young man, "[H]e made friends first, and then got religion." Many Protestant churches have accepted that path, but some young Latinos don't see that as an option in the Catholic church.

Catholics have an established and successful tradition of helping the poor and caring for the sick and elderly, but some young people also view the faith as anti-gay and intolerant. Younger Hispanics, like other demographics, are more likely to be liberal than older generations and are more likely to chafe at the Catholic Church's conservative stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Many young Hispanics certainly await the announcement of the next pope in the face of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation with anticipation, but a growing number feel disengaged from who occupies the Vatican next.

Some simply don't feel religious. But Gallup points out that, since the number of Protestant Hispanics may increase in the years ahead and Protestant Latinos are more religious overall than Catholic Latinos, the level of Hispanic religiosity may actually go up in the coming years.

It just won't be Catholic religiosity.

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