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How many Hispanics are Catholic?

Saturday, March 30, 2013 9:30 PM

¡Felices Pascuas a todos!

Yesterday, Father Masseo Gonzales responded to an earlier post with the following question:

You have only 61% of Hispanics in the United States being Catholic (total 53,843,741 Hispanics and 33,100,000 Catholic). Isn’t that number sort of low? It was estimated to be roughly 75% about five years ago. Am I missing something?

I had not intended to post anything this week as I have been taking time for Holy Week celebrations, but his is a great question that is worth responding to in some detail, so here we go:

I’m not sure what estimate Fr. Gonzales is referring to, but back in 2000, the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life (HCAPL) survey found that 70% of Hispanic adults identified themselves as Catholic. When surveying Latino adults for religious identity or affiliation, Fe y Vida’s Research Center has always given priority to surveys conducted bilingually, and the HCAPL survey was the first large survey to give the respondents an opportunity to respond in either English or Spanish.

Recent survey results

So what has happened since then? A number of research organizations have begun to use a bilingual methodology in their surveys. At the same time, researchers have refined the way they ask the question about religious affiliation. Older surveys tended to offer multiple choices (i.e. “Do you consider yourself Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or something else?”). Today, most surveys are either open-ended (i.e. “What is your religious affiliation, if any?”) or multiple-choice with a clearly stated option for no religious affiliation. As a result, many people who might have once identified themselves as Catholic, even though they seldom or never go to church, are now more inclined to respond that they have no religious affiliation. In addition, there seems to be a real trend of Latinos leaving the Catholic Church in recent years, mostly in favor of no religious affiliation, as I have mentioned in previous posts here and here.

Since 2008, seven bilingual national surveys with a large population of Latino respondents (roughly 2,000 or more) have reported their findings with regard to religious affiliation. Four of them were conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center in their annual National Survey of Latinos (NSL). Here are the results of those surveys:

% of Latinos who were Catholic

You may notice that there is no number for the 2012 National Survey of Latinos. Although the Pew Hispanic Center included a question about religious affiliation in their survey, they chose to focus their report of the findings from that survey on aspects of political life, so the percentage of Latinos who were Catholic in the 2012 NSL survey is not publicly available. Also, the Gallup surveys are actually year-long averages from their tracking surveys, and as a whole they represent the largest survey sample, with the smallest statistical margin of error. However, as I previously noted, the Gallup survey sample was weighted for a variety of demographic data, but it did not include a weighting for generation. That leaves open the possibility that immigrant Latinos (the most highly Catholic sector of the U.S. Latino population) may have been significantly underrepresented. Of the major surveys, only the NSL surveys applied a sampling weight that factors in the number of years in the U.S., so despite its smaller sample size, Fe y Vida’s Research Center generally favors the Pew Hispanic Center’s NSL data over other sources.

Fe y Vida’s pastoral estimates

Taking the four NSL surveys from 2008 to 2011 together yields an average of 62% of Latinos who are Catholic—roughly the same as the 2011 survey results. Keep in mind that these surveys were conducted only with adults, ages 18 and above, but 33% of Latinos in the U.S. are under the age of 18. Since they are not represented in the survey, statistically the surveys cannot tell us anything about their religious affiliation. In fact, many sociologists would say that it would be meaningless to ask little children about their religious affiliation, so they are generally not even considered.

However, from a pastoral perspective, it is very important to know how many Latino children are Catholic. Hundreds of thousands of Hispanic infants and toddlers are baptized every year, and many more Latino parents would tell you that they and their family are Catholic, even though the children may not yet have been baptized. How should all of these children be accounted for in our Catholic population estimates?

At Fe y Vida’s Research Center, we respond to the pastoral need for data by providing estimates of the racial/ethnic diversity of the Catholic population by age group—including children. These estimates are based on our own mathematical model of the Catholic population that varies by race/ethnicity and age. While the model takes into account the best public data we can find, it does not have the scientific validity of a large survey or a census. Given the fact that there is no census data available on religious affiliation and even the best surveys leave out 1/3 or more of the Latino population (mostly children), we believe that an informed estimate is better than having no data to reflect on. So that is what we provide on our Fast Facts page.

To answer Fr. Gonzalez’ question, the model we are using for our 2012 estimates assumes that roughly 62% of Hispanic adults were Catholic, with some variation by age group. For Latinos under age 18, we used a slightly lower estimate of 60%, which corresponds to the Catholicity of Latinos ages 18 to 49 in our model. The reasoning here is that most Hispanic children have Hispanic parents in the 18 to 49 age range, and we assume that most Latino Catholic parents have either already baptized their children or they hope to do so at some point. From a pastoral perspective, that is probably enough for us to count them among our Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.

So how many U.S. Hispanics are Catholic?

The end result is an estimate of 33.1 million Latino Catholics in the U.S.—roughly 61.5% of the overall Hispanic population in the United States of 53.8 million. We will update these numbers from time to time based on new survey data and new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau as they become available, and the findings will always be reported here first—so stay tuned! 🙂

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please take a moment to share it with others below or write us a note. You are also invited to send us your name and email address by using the form in the left-hand column of this page, so that we can keep you informed with our latest updates. As always, feel free to contact us to explore how Instituto Fe y Vida’s Research and Resource Center can help you understand the pastoral needs in your community or overcome the challenges you are experiencing. ¡Paz y bien a todos!

Posted by Ken Johnson-Mondragón | in Demographics | 1 Comment »

One Comment on “How many Hispanics are Catholic?

  1. Father Masseo Gonzales Says:

    Thank you Ken once again, for your wonderful work. Hope I didn’t spoil your Easter Break! lol

    You write: “In addition, there seems to be a real trend of Latinos leaving the Catholic Church in recent years, mostly in favor of no religious affiliation, as I have mentioned in previous posts here and here.” Wow, I think you are on to something here. I was waiting for someone to put into language what I already sensed. Not only does it seem you are the only one doing this sort of work, but you do it with such love and passion for the Catholic Latino community. Thanks again and when I have some more time, I want to go through your response line by line! 🙂

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