SALT LAKE CITY – For the Rev. Eleazar Silva, pastor of the mostly Spanish-speaking Sacred Heart Parish, working with young adults means helping them navigate multiple, and sometimes competing, identities.
Many of his parishioners are Latino in an Anglo culture who speak one language in school but another at home, and live out their Catholic faith in an overwhelmingly non-Catholic culture here in Salt Lake City.
Because this is a small and relatively poor diocese, Silva’s parishioners must keep their faith with far less assistance from the Church than what other denominations here offer.
“Often, they have to carry their faith on their own, and they don’t have the resources for that,” he said. So he’s left to watch many slip away from the faith or jump ship to other, more established churches.
The situation Silva faces isn’t unique to Utah. Hispanics living in America, once counted on sustain the Catholic population in the United States as their Anglo peers drop away in record numbers, are no longer such a sure bet.
A Pew report released in May found that the Catholic Church lost 3 million members since 2007, now comprising about 20 percent of the US population. Of that, about 34 percent is Hispanic. Put another way, for every new member the Church gains, another six leave, including many Hispanics.
The allure of secularism combined with efforts by other Christian denominations to appeal to Latino sensibilities has resulted in a mad scramble by Catholic leaders to create welcoming communities before a mass Hispanic exodus dramatically reshapes its once certain future.
Here in Salt Lake City, where the dominant Mormon population is known for its strong emphasis on community, the Catholic Church faces a specific set of challenges.
Brigham Young, on the run and looking for a place to settle with his band of followers, arrived here in 1847, exclaiming “This is the place!” Eventually, it became the global headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has morphed into one of the world’s fastest growing religions.
Salt Lake City today is more religiously diverse than before, but like most of Utah, Mormons still maintain strong influence over the religious landscape, as well as business, government, and social norms.
Catholic leaders in Salt Lake interviewed by Crux said that while relations between the two churches are friendly and supportive, there is often fierce competition on the ground for the many Hispanic residents who are reshaping the state.
The Rev. Martin Diaz, pastor of Salt Lake’s colorful Madeline Cathedral, said the Mormon social network here — and the social and financial benefits that come with being part of it — entice newly settled Hispanics looking to make it in their new home.
He hears from parishioners that others in his flock have left the Church because they were offered financial assistance, housing, or jobs from Mormons, and then felt obliged to switch churches.
“What happens with Hispanic Catholics, when they get close to the [Latter Day Saints] Church, often enough there’s a job that goes with that. Being who they are, they’re able to make those connections. Somebody knows somebody who’s looking to hire. It does happen that people have gone to the LDS church in order to get the services that go with that, whether that’s a job or food,” he said.
Martin Alcocer, a native of Mexico who moved to Salt Lake nearly 14 years ago after a stop in California, said he pulled his two sons from public school because the LDS presence was so intense.
During a drive through the city, Alcocer pointed out small buildings adjacent to many public schools, structures that provide religious education classes to LDS students during the school day.
Several times, he said, he discovered that his sons were brought to Mormon churches by other parents during after-school play-dates. Intent on preserving his sons’ Catholic faith, Alcocer enrolled them both in a local Catholic school.
But he said he’s still not sure even with religious schooling that his sons will keep the faith.
“My fear is that one of my sons will like a girl who is LDS, and I’m sure that the girl will try to convince him to become a member of her church,” he said.
The Diocese of Salt Lake City has boomed in recent years, growing from a small, predominantly Irish and German diocese of 50,000 adherents in the 1970s into a more diverse crowd totaling nearly 300,000 today. It’s classified as a mission diocese, one of 94 in the United States. Priests travel hours from mission church to mission church, and resources are scarce.
In the same time, the population of the state nearly tripled, from one million in 1970 to about 3 million today, completely remaking Utah’s demography. The 2010 government census found that the Hispanic population jumped 78 percent in just a decade.
That kind of growth here, and in similar dioceses, fueled mainly by immigrants from Mexico and other predominantly Catholic countries in Central and South America, has meant that the total Catholic population in the United States hasn’t declined, even as white Catholics stepped away from the faith in record numbers.
But that trend isn’t sustainable.
Research suggests that the Catholic Church in the United States can no longer count on Latinos to keep the numbers up: They are increasingly as likely as their non-Hispanic peers to embrace secularism or other religious traditions, just a generation or two removed from their immigrant parents.
Plus, increased competition from other faiths in Latin America, especially Pentecostalism, means Catholicism has lost some of its hold even before immigrants arrive in the States.
So in just a few years, the Church in America could experience a decline in population at levels never before seen in this country.
The reasons are complex, with geography, resources, and pressure from other religious groups all challenging the conventional wisdom that Hispanic Catholics would sustain the Church here for generations to come.
Today, the Diocese of Salt Lake is estimated to be anywhere from 60 to 80 percent Hispanic, and its leaders say they don’t have the resources to respond to a rapidly changing Church. There aren’t enough priests, church buildings, or a connected community to keep Spanish-speaking Catholics engaged.
Msgr. J. Terrence Fitzgerald served as vicar general for the diocese for nearly 20 years, during which, he said, he’s seen relations between the Mormon and Catholic churches improve at the hierarchal level.
When he was young, he said it wasn’t uncommon to see leaders of both bashing one another publicly. Today, the LDS church supports Catholic charities and has even donated money to help renovate Catholic churches.
But on the ground, he said, Mormons are aggressive in proselytizing, and their emphasis on lay leadership and strong family values are appealing to many Hispanics.
“In the rural areas, there’s tremendous pressure to be accepted in the local community, and there, to be accepted means to be Mormon,” he said. “They have the facilities, the money. If Catholics aren’t cared for and supported, which means having clergy and training for lay leaders, they just go to the Mormon Church.”
Maria Cruz, who runs the diocese’s Hispanic affairs office, said she’s seen that robust proselytizing firsthand.
She said she was once approached by members of an LDS church to help them celebrate the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a thoroughly Catholic and Latino festival held each December, which includes venerating an image of Mary, lighting candles, and praying a novena.
Mormons have historically frowned upon that kind of spiritual practice. And Cruz said she felt the LDS were trying to appropriate a sacred Catholic custom to attract Hispanic converts. She said she’s heard from some Catholics she works with in rural Utah that some Mormon churches even display images of the Virgin of Guadalupe in their buildings.
A spokesman from the LDS Church declined interview requests for this article.
A study released last year by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of American Latinos who identify as Catholic has plunged 12 percentage points in only four years to 55 percent.
Nearly one-quarter are “former Catholics” and the trend is discouraging. Among Hispanics who are 18-29 years old, a minority are Catholic, 45 percent.
Understanding why Hispanic believers switch is complex. But according to Pew, three reasons were cited by about half of all Latinos who left Catholicism for another version of Christianity:
- Forty-five percent “just gradually drifted away,”
- Fifty-seven percent stopped believing in the teachings of the Catholic Church,
- About half joined a congregation that “reaches out” and helps its members.
Joe Boland, vice president of mission at the Chicago-based Catholic Extension, said that how — or if — the Catholic Church engages its Hispanic members will “dramatically impact what the future looks like.”
“The health of the American Catholic Church and its vibrancy depends on how we can pass on the faith to first, second, third generation Latino Catholics,” he said. “We want to make sure the Church doesn’t miss out on a tremendous opportunity.”
To that end, he said, Catholic Extension raises and distributes millions of dollars each year to mission dioceses throughout the United States, with nearly half its $25 million in grants last year focused on engaging the Hispanic community, including some in Salt Lake.
When asked what the diocese needed most to keep Hispanics in the Church, nearly everyone interviewed by Crux in Salt Lake said the same thing: More priests.
“We have so many Hispanics, but not enough priests,” Cruz, the Hispanic outreach director, said. “The Spanish-speaking priests work double, because the churches with the Hispanic Masses are full. This is a mission diocese, and everybody works really hard, doing the best they can. But the truth is, we need more. We need more formation for lay people, yes, but also more priests.”
Boland said there are no quick fixes, but said a cultural shift is the best way to encourage vocations.
“It’s going to take time to develop Hispanic clergy, but you don’t develop them without a vibrant faith experience that the Hispanic Catholic community can own,” he said. “Once they’re fully part of the Church and thriving, then those conversations about vocations begin.”
He pointed to other dioceses where the Hispanic Community has been engaged, and have seen something of a vocations surge: Little Rock, Des Moines, and Yakima, Wash.
Others said that beyond priests, parishes must ensure that they welcome Hispanic Catholics.
“So far, I’ve not seen, or experienced, the integrated parish,” Diaz, the cathedral’s rector, said. “Because what we pretty much mean is that we’re all going to be together in English. We don’t expect the English-speaking people to be bilingual, we expect the Spanish-speaking people to be bilingual.”
Silva, the pastor at Sacred Heart, cited the cultural challenges, and said the Catholic Church in the United States is far behind other churches.
“The Catholicism Hispanics find here is one out of Germany and Ireland,” he said, “and they come from a Church with roots in Spain. So even from the beginning, we’re talking about different things.”
But, he said, part of the solution lies in convincing Hispanic Catholics that their future is here, in their new communities, and not where they used to live.
“One of the things you can do is change the attitude of the people, ask them to commit more to this church more than the church at home, because often, they still think their church is the one back home,” he said. “Then they begin to realize that they’re not going back, and begin to live their lives, and faith lives, here.”