National Edition

Children of Hispanic immigrants face unique religious challenges

Published: Friday, Nov. 15 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Father Arturo Banuelas has a solution for the growing number of Catholic young adults leaving the church: Get them to care about and serve others.

"What happens is that begins to change the way you see religion," Banuelas said of the youths of the St. Pius X Parish in El Paso, Texas, who give service in the impoverished Sierra Mountains of Mexico.

Caring for the poor opens the door to meaningful Bible study and teaching of Catholic doctrines, which lead to a deep, personal and longlasting commitment to their faith, said Banuelas, who has been pastor over the parish since 1988.

"That turns them on to the Lord big time, to use their language," he said.

And it's the kind of program more parishes should adopt if they want to prevent Hispanic Americans, particularly youths, from adopting the American way of often switching religions, according to scholars who study the migrating faith of Latinos in America.

A recent survey of Hispanics in the United States showed 69 percent said they were raised Roman Catholic, but only 53 percent said they remain affiliated with the Catholic faith of their youth. Young adults under age 30 had the lowest percentage of affiliation with the Catholic Church (42 percent) and the highest percentage (15 percent) of those saying they were unaffiliated.

The data from the Public Religion Research Institute's 2013 Hispanic Values Survey also confirm other trends shown in previous studies — namely, that Hispanic evangelical Protestants are increasing in number, and the group of those who say they have no religion is growing even faster.

"I attribute that to (the fact that) the percentage of Latinos who are not immigrants is growing," said Tim Matovina, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in Latino Catholicism. "We’ve known for a while now that the further people move away from the immigrant generation, the more likely they are to move and switch, which is not surprising. That’s true in American life generally."

Generational differences

More than four in 10 Americans (44 percent) no longer belong to their childhood faith, a 2009 Pew Research Center study found, with 33 percent having joined another religious community and 11 percent becoming unaffiliated.

Hispanics are no exception to this trend, Matovina said, particularly those who were born in the United States and are two or three generations removed from their immigrant ancestors — most of whom were Catholic.

For example, the Pew study found the proportion of Hispanic Catholics who have changed religions jumped from 15 percent among first-generation immigrants to 23 percent among the second generation and 22 percent for the third generation.

Scholars say many of those making a break from their ancestral faith are simply following a long-held pattern for children of immigrants: they leave home for school or work, marry someone of another faith, assimilate into new social groups or become consumed in making a living, and soon religion is no longer a priority in their life.

But Matovina said there are some circumstances unique to the current Hispanic American experience that account for a flight from faith, particularly by youths who are not feeling as successful or integrated as the grandchildren of immigrants did in the 1940s or 1950s.

Today's Hispanic American youths "don’t belong with their immigrant parents and are not feeling totally accepted and integrated ... into society in general," he said. "So that can lead to religious disassociation. A certain kind of apathy almost."

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