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The Changing Face of U.S. Catholicism

The United States has always been a predominantly Protestant country. But with the steady influx of immigrants, particularly from largely Catholic Latin America, the percentage of Americans who declare themselves Catholic has grown. Cultural influences also are changing the practice of the religion.

When the American colonies declared independence from Britain in the late 18th century, Catholics were a minority of European immigrants, barely accounting for one percent of the population. Many analysts say the U.S. Protestant majority saw Catholics as a potential threat and often excluded them from public life. It was only after John F. Kennedy was elected as the nation's first Catholic president in 1960 that American Catholicism came of age.

Luis Lugo, Director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says today Catholicism is America's largest single Christian denomination at 25 percent. "It has been an interesting history, to say the least. Coming from a very persecuted minority - - and by persecuted I mean being the object of violence, not simply discrimination -- and significant concern about whether a Catholic could be president of the United States as late as the election of 1960 - - to today, where recent polling indicates that Americans are very, very favorable toward the Roman Catholic community that, in fact, being a Catholic, on balance, is a positive," says Lugo.

Immigrant Influences

Many analysts say Catholicism has become the dominant Christian denomination in part because of immigration from Latin American countries, and, more recently, from the Philippines.

And cultural influences are changing U.S. Catholicism, says Gaston Espinosa, a religious studies professor at California's Claremont McKenna College. "Most Hispanics are religious. They are much more celebratory in their practices. They tend to display their beliefs in a more public way. They're used to doing that in Latin America," says Espinoza. "In Latin America, they have lots of festivals and celebrations where they'll show the Virgin [Mary] through the town, where they'll have little altars along the sides of the road. But I am beginning to see more and more little altars in urban centers and in rural communities [in America] where Hispanics make up a large number of people."

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 68 percent of Hispanics proclaim themselves to be Catholic. More than half of those describe themselves as Charismatic Christians, who identify with renewalist, or spirit-filled, Christianity which includes belief in divine healing. Moreover, studies show that in the past 25 years, between 13 and 20 percent of Catholic Hispanics converted to Protestant Charismatic and Pentecostal churches as well as other religions.

Sociologist Joseph Varacalli, Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at New York's Nassau Community College, says the Catholic Church is the biggest loser because of these conversions. "Many of the newer immigrants have been turned off by an American Catholicism which doesn't respect their experiential, emotional style of religion. And many upper-middle class people are conforming to the values of a more modern, secular world, and they are leaving for that reason," says Varacalli. "On the other hand, some people are looking toward more conservative Protestant groups and other religions, which provide them with the sense of clarity that the Catholic Church is no longer providing. So, there is a leakage at both ends."

The Hispanic Factor

Despite the desertions and a series of sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years, many analysts expect that Catholicism will continue to grow, with Hispanics making up more than half of U.S. Catholics by 2050.

Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says two reasons will likely drive this growth. "The immigrants who are coming in from places like Mexico tend to be predominantly Roman Catholic. And also the fertility rate in the Catholic community, among those Hispanics, is higher than it is for others. So even though many of those Catholic immigrants also convert to Protestantism, particularly the Pentecostal variety of Protestantism, which is very, very strong also in Latin America, the numbers of [those] who are leaving are more than made up for by immigration and the higher fertility rates," says Lugo.

Some religious leaders worry that secularism and pluralism in America could pose new challenges to the Catholic Church. Timothy Matovina, Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, says it remains to be seen whether Latin American Catholics will maintain their religious fervor in the long term. "Among the young people, you see already that they are acculturating themselves to U.S. society. One of the worries of church leaders, and I would put myself in this camp, is a lot of the European immigrants came with this strong allegiance to their Catholic faith. And over time, a lot of those traditions from their homelands were lost. And they've become American Catholics. Will the same thing happen to Latinos? The next 20 years will tell whether or not the evangelization within the Catholic Church of our Latino Catholics will have a revitalizing effect or whether it won't."

More than 200 years since the country was formed, most experts say American Catholicism continues to evolve and struggle, now in a more pluralistic and secular world.