Pew study: U.S. Latinos increasingly leaving Catholic faith

Parishioners gather for services at St. Mary of Parishioners gather for services at St. Mary of the Isle Roman Catholic Church in Long Beach on Aug. 15, 2013. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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Growing numbers of Latinos are abandoning the Catholic faith of their childhood, with some gravitating to smaller evangelical churches and others leaving organized religion altogether, according to a report released Wednesday.

Fifty-five percent of the nation's estimated 35.4 million Latino adults consider themselves Catholic, a significant drop since 2010, when 67 percent identified with the church, the Pew Research Center found.

While the Catholic church on Long Island says the number of Latinos packing the pews continues to rise, leaders recognize that evangelical churches are siphoning off some of the former faithful.

Pew found that 16 percent of Latinos are evangelicals, up from 12 percent, and those with no religious affiliation increased from 10 percent to 18 percent over the same three-year period. The report is based on a July 2013 national survey of 5,100 adults.

Respondents gave a variety of reasons for abandoning Catholicism, including the discovery of more helpful congregations and an erosion of belief in certain Catholic teachings.

Ruben Cruzate, pastor of Uno Mas Para Jesus (One More For Jesus), said his Farmingville storefront evangelical church has grown since its founding seven years ago to 300 members. All are Latinos who used to be Catholic.

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"We approach people in a completely different way," said Cruzate, a native of Peru. "We offer hope. It's more free and spontaneous. We can pour our hearts out to God and in return He listens."

The Catholic church remains by far the most dominant among Latinos, whom leaders credit with infusing the Diocese of Rockville Centre with a new wave of energy and filling pews.

Driven in part by increased immigration to the Island, Hispanics now account for at least a quarter of Catholics in the diocese, according to Census figures and church experts, who said that represents a doubling or tripling since the early 1980s.

About 1.5 million Catholics belong to the diocese, the nation's sixth largest.

Sister Margaret Smyth, head of the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate, said the rise of Latino evangelical churches is also apparent.

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"I see it happening," she said. "I also see people returning to the Catholic church."

One reason is the election of Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America. He has gained widespread admiration by being more outgoing and welcoming, stressing acceptance over rigid doctrine.

Manuel J. Ramos, former head of the Hispanic Apostolate for the diocese, said the Pew report was "a wake-up call."

"While our Masses are packed, it doesn't mean we are reaching everyone," he said.

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