CNN observes “Latinos may be ‘future’ of U.S. Catholic Church.” The use of ‘may’ and ‘future’ together in this headline is interesting as few would argue that Latinos do not already make up a very significant part of the U.S. Catholic Church today (as well as historically—predating the existence of the United States in areas of the American south and southwest).
CARA often gets inquiries from media, academics, and others about estimating the year in which Catholics self-identifying as Hispanic or Latino/a will likely become a majority of the U.S. Catholic population. Perhaps this is the ‘future’ that the CNN article refers to? CARA surveys estimate that the proportion of adult Catholics who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino/a is 35% and growing.
Projecting to a majority is a difficult proposition as there are too many unknowns in regard to immigration, fertility, and self-identity—both ethnic and religious—of future generations. For these reasons CARA has not and does not make such a projection (the Pew Hispanic Center has made population projections based on race and ethnicity through 2050. Yet, these are unrelated to religious self-identification).
What is interesting about the combined focus on the Catholic Church, Latinos, and the United States is that it is somewhat narrow-focused. The Catholic Church is a global faith and institution and it often goes unnoticed that the proportion of Catholics in the world residing in Latin America is larger than the proportion of Catholics who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino/a in the United States.
Catholics in Latin America will likely become a majority of the global Catholic population before a majority of Catholics in the United States self-identify as Hispanic or Latino/a (that is not to say that Catholics in Latin America self-identify as Hispanic or Latino/a. Those terms, as used in the United States, have unique and specific meanings and histories. It is also the case that many people immigrating to the United States from Latin American countries also do not self-identify as Hispanic or Latino/a. Ethnicity, race, and religion are always self-identified).
According to the Catholic Church’s Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE) 2007, there were more than 477 million Catholics residing in Latin American countries (the 20 countries plus Puerto Rico in the Western Hemisphere where Spanish or Portuguese is the dominant language). This represented 42% of the world Catholic population of 1.147 billion in 2007 (for an evaluation of the accuracy of these data see a previous post).
The mean center of the Catholic population today is clearly off the continent of Europe and likely sailing somewhere in the southern Atlantic Ocean toward the Americas. The Catholic Church reported in the 2007 ASE that 49.585% of the Catholic population resided in the Western Hemisphere. Sometime between 2007 and 2009, in all likelihood, the Americas became the new population majority in the Catholic Church with those Catholics residing in Latin America making up the biggest share.
The size of the Catholic population in Latin America has grown so quickly that the Church hierarchy has yet to catch up. Although it is not designed as a geographically representative institution, only 19 Cardinal electors are from Latin America representing 17% of all electors in the College of Cardinals. Even among all Cardinal electors in the Western Hemisphere (including those in Canada and the United States) only 54% are from a Latin American country.