Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Protestant & Catholic in Latin America

The Western hemisphere is getting a lot more Protestant


The folks at Pew have another fascinating survey out, this one tracking the changing religion demographics in Latin America. The headline finding: Catholicism is in freefall in the historically Catholic region. Excerpt:

Historical data suggest that for most of the 20th century, from 1900 through the 1960s, at least 90% of Latin America’s population was Catholic (See History of Religious Change). Today, the Pew Research survey shows, 69% of adults across the region identify as Catholic. In nearly every country surveyed, the Catholic Church has experienced net losses from religious switching, as many Latin Americans have joined evangelical Protestant churches or rejected organized religion altogether. For example, roughly one-in-four Nicaraguans, one-in-five Brazilians and one-in-seven Venezuelans are former Catholics.

Overall, 84% of Latin American adults report that they were raised Catholic, 15 percentage points more than currently identify as Catholic. The pattern is reversed among Protestants and people who do not identify with any religion: While the Catholic Church has lost adherents through religious switching, both Protestant churches and the religiously unaffiliated population in the region have gained members. Just one-in-ten Latin Americans (9%) were raised in Protestant churches, but nearly one-in-five (19%) now describe themselves as Protestants. And while only 4% of Latin Americans were raised without a religious affiliation, twice as many (8%) are unaffiliated today.

All this has happened within a single lifetime. Why have so many Latin Americans left the religious of their youth? More:

The survey asked former Catholics who have converted to Protestantism about the reasons they did so. Of the eight possible explanations offered on the survey, the most frequently cited was that they were seeking a more personal connection with God. Many former Catholics also said they became Protestants because they wanted a different style of worship or a church that helps its members more.

Additionally, more than half of the converts to Protestantism said their new PR_14.11.13_latinAmerica-overview_revised2-05church evangelized them, and the survey found that Protestants there are far, far more likely to share their faith with others. Protestants in Latin America are significantly more conservative on moral issues than Catholics, with 60 percent of those who left Catholicism saying that they were looking for a more morally rigorous church. Interestingly, the differences in moral outlook remain even when comparing weekly Catholic massgoers with Protestants who go to their own services weekly.

Also fascinating to this North American: Most Latin American Protestants are Pentecostals, not Evangelicals.

Almost no Latin Americans are converting from Protestantism to Catholicism, while the numbers are large in the opposite direction. But that is not as significant as it might seem. If almost every adult in Latin America started life as a Catholic, it’s not surprising that so few are converting to Catholicism, versus Protestantism. It’s like the Republican Party in Louisiana in the early 1980s. The numbers probably looked the same for Democrats and Republicans back then, because most everybody in the state at the time was a registered Democrat. It looked like all the momentum was headed toward the GOP, because there were almost no Republicans in Louisiana to convert into Democrats.

But this should be cold comfort to Latin American Catholics. A generation later in Louisiana, the GOP heavily dominates Louisiana politics. People 35 and under likely cannot remember a time when the Democrats did.

Along those lines, in most Latin American countries, over half of the Protestant converts embraced Protestantism at age 25 or younger. Protestantism could well be on its way to becoming the religion of Latin America’s youth. Protestantism seems to be making regular churchgoers out of ex-Catholics who had drifted away from the regular practice of their faith.

It appears that there is no chance now or at any time in the near future that ex-Catholics will return to the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis.

I found this to be the most important of all the data sets: why Latin Americans left Catholicism for Protestantism. It’s not about wanting a more liberal church, but the opposite. And it’s about wanting a church where God felt real to them. More:


Here’s a link to the entire Pew Report.  

What do you think? I’m especially interested in the views of Latin American readers, and Americans, both Protestant and Catholic, with experience in Latin America.

UPDATE: Here’s the commentary on this from the Traditionalist Catholics at Rorate Caeli, which notes that the collapse of Catholicism in Latin America happened after the Second Vatican Council. Excerpt:

What happened exactly in the 1960s?…

The reference is extremely appropriate, so let us try to remember: it is always affirmed by those who say that the collapse in almost all Catholic indicators that followed the Second Vatican Council was a coincidence that the 1960s and 1970s were an era of strong secularization and that the collapse would have happened anyway.

Well, that would explain the collapse in Western Europe, North America, and Australia. But in Latin America (where the current pope studied to be a priest during the 1960s, being ordained in December 1969), what happened instead during the same period was an intense religious revival. But instead of it being channeled through the traditional structures of Catholic life, these same traditional structures were being dismantled by the Latin American hierarchy inebriated with the spirit of aggiornamento, and Latin Americans, who just wanted pure religious life, converted in droves to Protestantism, the only “space” in which they could find signs of the Christian message.

In Honduras, the country of the most powerful man in the Roman Curia today after the Pope, Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga (who has been a bishop in the capital since 1978, first as auxiliary then as Archbishop), the hierarchy led by him managed the amazing feat of transforming that country in the first Catholic-minority nation in Central America, a vertiginous fall from 94% to 46% in the same period [emphasis theirs — rd]

I had not thought of it that way (or at all, frankly): the post-Sixties period was a time of rapid secularization in Europe, and parts of North America, but of religious revival in Latin America.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now