To gauge how dramatically things have changed in the Latino community, look no farther than the gold chain around Marisol Medina’s neck.
The necklace, which Medina’s devoutly Roman Catholic mother gave her, once held a cross – which has been replaced by a globe.
“It represents my shift from religion,” says Medina, “to the world, which I now believe in more than the cross or religion.”
Medina, a 24-year-old senior at Florida International University in Miami, was born in Colombia. She was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school. A generation ago, her renunciation of religion would have been rare for anyone of Latin American origin.
The problem for the Catholic Church is that you really can’t call it rare anymore.
According to a study released this month by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., the share of U.S. Latinos, or Hispanics, who identify as Catholic has plummeted from 67 percent to 55 percent in just the past five years. A quarter of Latinos are now lapsed Catholics.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops immigration committee, says the report "shows us that too many Hispanics are still on the periphery of the church and need to be brought in."
But Pew Center senior researcher Cary Funk sees a more complicated drama: “We were surprised by how much change we saw,” Funk says. “There are pushes and pulls going on among Hispanics that anyone would want to take note of.”
It’s no secret that many Latinos have been moving to Protestant churches. But no one expected a Latino Catholic exodus this large and abrupt.
Latinos and Catholicism have been virtually synonymous ever since Columbus arrived in the New World half a millennium ago. Latinos are now the largest minority in the United States – especially in South Florida – and the U.S. Catholic Church hoped they would raise its declining membership.
That seems doubtful now – most of all when you consider the trend among younger Latinos like Medina.
Her cohort – Latinos under age 30 – matters so much because it represents half the entire U.S. Latino population. The Pew study found only 45 percent of that youth group call themselves Catholic today, compared to 60 percent in 2010. Most reject Vatican teachings against things like birth control and homosexuality. And, like Medina, a third of them have opted out of religion altogether.
“I think young [Latinos] are just fed up with backwardness and they don’t want a church that won’t tolerate everyone,” says Medina, who is a member of the Secular Student Alliance at FIU. “We’re at a time in which gay marriage is becoming legal, and most young people are for it.”
Wenski argues the disconnect is a matter of outreach – and that younger Latinos, like younger Americans as a whole, are misunderstanding Vatican teachings.
"That cohort is perhaps the least religiously informed generation," he says. "This is a challenge for us to present our teachings in a coherent way, and if they would seek to understand those teachings, they might find that they're not as intolerant as they seem to think they are."
None of this surprises the Rev. Albert Cutié of South Florida, who is arguably Catholicism’s best known Latino defector. The Cuban-American priest was a Spanish-language TV talk-show star – Padre Alberto – before he left the church in 2009 and got married.
Cutié is now an Episcopal priest who heads the Church of the Resurrection in Biscayne Park, which holds its own Spanish-language masses. A sharp critic of Catholic doctrines like a celibate and all-male priesthood, he says he can relate to what’s driving younger Latino Catholics away.
“A lot of them are saying, ‘I don’t want to go to my grandmother’s church anymore, I want to go to a church that speaks to me in the Latino world,’” says Cutié, whose 2010 book, “Dilemma: A Priest’s Struggle With Faith and Love,” describes his own Catholic exit. “A lot of them have this very, very repressive religious culture that they come from, and they say, ‘God can’t be like that, God has to be bigger than that.’”
Protestant denominations, of course, can be just as morally and socially conservative as the Catholic Church. And although the percentage of Latinos who are Catholic is falling, the Pew study finds the percentage of U.S. Catholics who are Latino – more than a third today – is actually rising.
The “paradox,” as Funk of the Pew Center says, “is that Hispanics are still an important part of the U.S. Catholic Church even as fewer Hispanics are Catholic.”
And even ex-Catholics like Cutié say the popularity of Pope Francis – the first Latin American pontiff, elected last year in no small part to halt the mass flight of Catholics to Protestant churches on his home continent – could halt the Latino exodus on this continent. "Francis is speaking a softer gospel," says Cutié, "that seems more connected to the new Latino reality."
Still, Funk points to another Pew finding that’s not as encouraging: Five years ago 21 percent of Catholic Latinos said they could imagine leaving the church; today it’s 29 percent.
That's the new Latino reality the Pope and the Catholic Church will have to seek to understand.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.