It used to be a fair assumption that America's growing Latino population would help bolster the Catholic Church here. After all, 39 percent of all Catholics in the US claim Latino heritage, and 29 of the country's 272 bishops are Latino too.
But two new reports this week outline a slow decline in the number of Latinos affiliated and engaged with the Catholic church. The Pew Research Center released data on Wednesday from a nationwide survey of more than 5,000 Latinos that highlight some religious polarization within the demographic.
"Latinos are the nation's largest minority group. We think it's important to look at how religion is changing among Latinos," said Jessica Martinez, the co-author of the Pew survey.
Martinez said this is the first time they've been able to put some numbers on the religious change happening in the Latino community. Overall, she said among the people surveyed in Spanish and English, they noticed Latinos increasingly identifying as Protestant or "unaffiliated," while Catholicism showed declines.
And as for religious shifts, Pew's data shows that 30 percent of Latino immigrants changed their religion. And within that group, half changed their religion after coming to the United States.
"This may reflect some of the religious changes that are taking place in Latin America, where shares of Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated have been growing in majority-Catholic countries such as Mexico," according to the survey's report.
But the Catholic Church has always been a natural communal place for Hispanics, according to Hosffman Ospino, a researcher and professor of Hispanic Ministry and Religious Education at Boston College.
On Monday, Ospino released an extensive report he authored with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University that examines how Latinos in the US interact with Catholic parishes.
"If you want to know about how the church is responding to the Hispanic presence in the US, you want to measure the temperature of the Catholic community has toward this influx of Hispanics--you go to the parish," Ospino told me over the phone.
He found that some Latinos are becoming more fairweather Catholics: attending service, but not participating in other church activities such as Sunday school programs or volunteer projects.
"This is a critical mass of people that are transforming Catholicism," Ospino added.
In his report he cites that 71 percent of the growth of the Catholic population in the US is driven by new immigrants from Latin America. He attributes the decline among Latinos to a generational gap.
He says that while the Catholic Church's outreach efforts can reach newly arrived immigrants, "very little is being done to the second- or third-generation - the children of these immigrants."
Have a look at the report yourself. I've posted it below.