The Changing Faces of American Catholics

Young, white Catholics are increasingly walking away from the Catholic church in the United States, while immigrants — mainly Latinos — are taking their place. Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, discusses the trend.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In the U.S. the pope is facing a Catholic church that is growing more diverse, and in some ways, more divided. This portrait is shaped by ethnic shifts, by battles over the fallout from the clergy sex abuse cases, by questions about the role of women in the church. For a view of Catholicism in America today, we're joined by Luis Lugo. He's the director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The forum recently released a demographic portrait of Catholics in the U.S. and he joins us to talk about that.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. LUIS LOGO (Director, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): Thank you. It's good to be with you.

NORRIS: Where do we see the major demographic shifts in the Church?

Mr. LOGO: The two major shifts happening in the Roman Catholic Church have to do with age and immigration. It's the graying and the browning of the Roman Catholic Church. Among white Catholics, they are much older than the population as a whole. The second major shift, which connects to the first, is immigration. The Roman Catholic Church is composed of 25 percent, roughly, of members who are new immigrants to the United States. The vast majority of those are Latino, over 80 percent. And they tend to be, on the other hand, much younger than the population as a whole.

NORRIS: Latinos now account for almost one third of all Catholics in the U.S.

Mr. LUGO: Yes, indeed. About 30 percent of all Catholics in the United States today are Latinos or Hispanics. Among those, however, who are 40 years of age or younger of Hispanics actually account for close to 50 percent of the Roman Catholic Church.

NORRIS: Now, I'm curious about the long term impact to some of these demographic shifts. I'd like to tick through just a few things. Does that mean the geographic center for the church might shift - from the Northeast to the Southwest, or the South?

Mr. LUGO: Indeed it is already shifting. When you look at the country as a whole, clearly, the demographic center of gravity of Catholicism is shifting from the Northeast and the Midwest, to the South and to the West - which again, reflects the growing Latino influence in the Roman Catholic Church.

NORRIS: And traditions. The support for some of the older world or…

Mr. LUGO: Yes.

NORRIS: …or longstanding traditions that have fallen away in some of the more modern parishes, particularly suburban parishes.

Mr. LUGO: Latinos bring in a fascinating combination of older traditions and newer traditions within global Catholicism. The older traditions, devotion to Mary, praying the rosary, et cetera, Latinos are indeed quite observant.

But they also bring in practices that we might more closely associate with Pentecostalism. Much more lively masses, what I call bringing the fiesta spirit to mass with clapping, singing, moving around - so it's an interesting combination of the older traditionalism and the newer charismatic practices.

NORRIS: The Catholic Church is more than just the church, the building where people meet on - on Sunday morning. It's also an institution that supports several things, that touches people's lives in many ways. What does all this mean for Catholic institutions - for orphanages, for hospitals, for the work that's being done by Catholic charities?

Mr. LUGO: Well, it means that many of those efforts which were directed at non-Catholics - because most Catholics had achieved middle-class living standards -are now increasingly having to be focused, as well, on the many fellow Catholics who are coming in with much lower educational levels. In terms of economic levels, some 60 percent of Latino Catholics make less than $30,000 dollars a year.

So, you're talking about introducing some very significant social and economic distinctions within the Roman Catholic Church, and that will call forth for very innovative approaches on the part of Catholic social services.

NORRIS: The American Catholic Churches is in the spotlight right now, of course, with the Papal visit. What does all this mean for America's role in the global Catholic Church - will American Catholics be more or less important in the global church, with these shifts?

Mr. LUGO: It's hard to imagine that American Catholicism will not be even more important going forward, but certainly with the influx of Latinos constituting an ever greater share of the Roman Catholic Church, that's only going to increase. Because half of all the world's Catholics live in this hemisphere. Latin America's the single largest Catholic region in the world. This is going to be a very, very important region for global Catholicism in the 21st century.

NORRIS: Luis Lugo is the director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. LUGO: My pleasure.

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