David Kamerman/Genesis Photos for WORLD

Mass exodus

Next decade challenge | The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been losing members rapidly, a trend that may lead to big changes in American religion in coming years

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

Tim Pereira was an altar boy and his father played guitar in the church's folk music group. The family often gathered in the church basement after Mass to drink coffee and eat doughnuts with friends in their tight-knit parish. They ate spaghetti dinners with the rest of the church, browsed church bazaars, and went on family retreats. Their priest was a caring man who oversaw a close congregation.

Pereira remembers only community and warmth from his childhood in the Roman Catholic Church. He has no horror stories of cold churches or abusive priests. So why is Tim Pereira, 30, now an evangelical?

Pereira joins the 10 percent of Americans who have left the Catholic faith. While some high-profile Protestant intellectuals, such as Richard John Neuhaus in the 1990s, have converted to Roman Catholicism, the overall trend seems to be in the opposite direction. According to David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, the Roman Catholic Church is "hemorrhaging members." The Pew Forum's 2007 "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" found that Catholics have experienced the greatest net loss of any American religious tradition. Although Latinos are now the church's most faithful and orthodox members, church leaders have been worried about their exodus for over a decade. The numbers show a more diverse-and if immigration slows, a smaller-Roman Catholic Church in the coming years.

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Faithful immigrant Catholics have enabled the Catholic Church to keep a steady 25 percent of the American population, but as immigrants come in, young people and second-generation Latinos trickle out. In 1997, Andrew Greeley, a priest and sociologist, reported with urgency the news that one in seven Hispanic Catholics was abandoning the church. According to a Pew Hispanic Center study issued 10 years later, Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion, that number is now almost one in five for all Latinos, and it is 23 percent for second-generation Latino Americans.

Pereira, whose grandparents immigrated from Portugal, said his Catholic identity was "almost like a nationality." Chris Castaldo, author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic, echoes Pereira: "Catholicism is more than propositions that you believe. It's your culture. It's your identity. . . . It's hard to just walk away from that."

David Campbell told me that the breakdown of Catholic culture-the dissolution of tight-knit ethnic communities and the "hollowing" of Catholic education-is part of the reason the Catholic church is losing members. Latinos, like the Italian-American immigrants of decades ago, tend to congregate in ethnically and religiously homogeneous communities and see their religion as part of their ethnic identity. But as Latinos assimilate into American culture, they may cease to see their Catholic faith and cultural identity as intertwined.

Manuel Vasquez, professor of religion at the University of Florida, said that he expects Hispanics will continue the trend toward Protestant conversion, especially since more and more Latinos are encountering Protestantism in their native countries before they even immigrate. He believes that Latinos will continue to change American Catholicism with their vibrant, more charismatic form of worship. He adds, though, that it's unclear whether charismatic worship keeps young Latinos in the Catholic Church or pushes them toward Protestantism.

According to Campbell, most cradle Catholics who leave the church (roughly 60 percent) end up saying they have no religion, but the second-largest percentage (about 40 percent) turns to a more evangelical form of Christianity. Castaldo said that evangelical converts often mention that they feel a liberation from rituals and a freedom from a guilt that they are never doing enough to ensure their salvation. According to the Religious Landscape Survey, most ex-Catholics report that they simply "drifted away" from Catholicism, but those who become evangelicals say that the church was not meeting their spiritual needs. Ninety percent of Latino evangelical converts say that they were looking for a more direct and personal experience with God.

Pereira's spiritual life turned around in college when he listened to a tape by inspirational business speaker Robert "Butch" James. James said problems and answers preclude each other: If you have an answer, you don't have a problem. "So what happens if you have an omnipresent answer?" James asked, and Pereira began to wonder: "Is it possible to be OK with life no matter what's going on around you?" In what he too describes as "a drifting process," Pereira started searching for that answer in religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. He still went to a Catholic church but only intermittently and when he felt guilty.


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