The Way We Worship: Why Latinos Are Leaving the Catholic Church

The Charismatic movement, started by Father Emiliano Tardif in the Dominican Republic, has also helped—it’s a Catholic movement, but emphasizes faith healing, frequent, lively worship meetings and speaking in tongues, making it similar to many evangelical Pentecostal churches.

“The growing involvement of the laity [nonpriests] in the life of the church...shows how Catholics can have a personal relationship with God without having to go elsewhere,” says Maria Muñoz-Visoso, the head of a cultural diversity department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

These efforts have brought some Latinos back. Puerto Rican Isabella Maldonado, 33, was raised in a variety of faiths as a child, but as an adult chose to undergo rites to become a Roman Catholic. Today, living in Houston, she says she feels “a sense of peace and belonging” in her church.

But for every Latino who returns to Catholicism, four leave it, according to the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life national survey from 2003. Other studies show that the more educated we are, the more likely we are to leave the church to become “nonaffiliated,” that is, to belong to no church at all.

This group has grown explosively. In 1990, just 7 percent of Latinos reported not belonging to any religion. In 2012, surveys show anywhere from 14 to 19 percent of us are unaffiliated.

While “it’s a messy group” to figure out, says Juhem Navarro-Rivera, a research associate at the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C., most of the Latino “nones,” as he calls them, are young and well assimilated into the American mainstream, lean toward the Democratic party and have a higher education level than other Latinos. “These Latinos are interacting more with non-Latinos, [for whom] it’s more acceptable” to not belong to a church, or follow a mix of different spiritual practices, he says.