Latin Americans born into Roman Catholic families have increasingly left the faith for Protestant churches, while many others have dropped organized religion altogether in a major shift in the region’s religious identity, according to a survey released Thursday.
The study also showed that Pope Francis is highly popular in Latin America, with two-thirds or more of the population expressing a positive opinion. However, it also suggests the pope’s appeal has not been enough to stop Catholic losses across the region to Protestants, especially Pentecostalism.
Although 84 percent of Latin American adults report they were raised Catholic, only 69 percent currently identify as such, said the Pew Research Center in Washington. At the same time, Protestants have gained members. About one in 10 Latin Americans were raised Protestant, but nearly one in five now call themselves Protestant. About 4 percent of Latin Americans report they were raised with no religion, but 8 percent say they have no tie to any faith.
The survey by the Pew Research Center, Religion in Latin America, was conducted between October 2013 and February 2014. It reveals that Catholicism is the only Christian denomination that has lost ground in Latin America in recent years. Catholics still represent more than two-thirds of the adult population in nine of the 18 Latin American countries and one US territory (Puerto Rico) surveyed.
The report outlines the challenge for Catholic leaders in a region that was once a stronghold for the faith. Latin America still has about 425 million Catholics, or 40 percent of adherents worldwide, according to the poll. But the exodus from the Church continues.
The results suggest that Latin Americans have fully embraced the pope, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who is the first Latin American pontiff. In his home country, Francis has an overall approval rating of 98 percent. In all 14 of the countries analyzed, at least half of Catholics say they have a “very favorable” opinion of the pontiff.
However, the authors of the Pew report said former Catholics are more skeptical of the pope than those still in the Church; he is highly regarded by a majority of ex-Catholics only in Argentina and Uruguay. Substantial percentages of former Catholics also say it’s too soon to tell whether Francis represents real change, or to identify a tangible “Francis effect.”
The survey asked former Catholics who converted to Protestantism about the reasons for the change. Of the eight possible explanations offered, the most frequently cited were the need for a more personal connection with God and a different style of worship.
On moral issues, such as abortion, sex outside of marriage, divorce, and same-sex marriage, Catholics in Latin America tend to be less conservative than Protestants. This could be considered another reason for the conversion, since 60 percent of adults who left the Catholic Church did so looking for a denomination that places greater emphasis on morality.
In general, according to the Pew data, both Catholics and Protestants are more conservative than Hispanics in the United States.
Twenty-five of Protestant Hispanics and 49 percent of Catholic Hispanics in the US support same-sex marriage, according to the Pew data, while in all but four Latin American nations, backing for same-sex marriage is under 20 percent for Protestants and under 40 percent among Catholics. (Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico, and Chile are the exceptions.)
On birth control, 66 percent of Latin American Catholics support artificial contraception, and 60 percent believe the Vatican should end its prohibition on divorce.
When asked the most important way for Christians to help the poor, Catholics in nearly every Latin American country point most often to charity work. By way of contrast, a majority of Protestants believe that “bringing the poor and needy to Christ” is the best way to help.
Paradoxically, the number of Latin American Protestants who engage in charitable work is reportedly higher than that of Catholics.
The most rapidly growing religious movement in Latin America is Christian Pentecostalism, a high-energy style of praise and worship based on the Biblical “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” including healings, visions, and speaking in tongues.
Experts consulted by Pew offered two key reasons for its growth: Pentecostalism’s compatibility with indigenous religions, and the fact that many Latin Americans see Pentecostalism as conducive to economic prosperity.
The most Catholic countries were Mexico, with 81 percent Catholics and 9 percent Protestants, and Paraguay, with 89 percent Catholics and 7 percent Protestants.
Uruguay emerged as Latin America’s most secular country, with 37 percent of people saying they were atheist or agnostic or had no religious affiliation. Just 42 percent of people from Uruguay say they’re Catholic.
The more than 30,000 face-to-face interviews were conducted in all of Latin America’s Spanish-speaking countries except Cuba. The margin of error varies by country, ranging from plus or minus three percentage points to four points.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.