The world’s most Catholic region is becoming dramatically less so

(Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

If any region of the world is the heart of modern Catholicism, it's Latin America. Some 425 million Catholics live there, more than 40 percent of the world's total Catholic population. Plus, for the first time in history, there is a Latin American pope — and he's quite popular, if you hadn't heard. Despite this, a new report on religion in Latin America from Pew Research Center has come to an unmistakable conclusion: Latin America, the world's most Catholic region, has become dramatically less Catholic over the past few decades.

Pew has collected data from 18 countries and one U.S. territory (Puerto Rico) across Latin America and the Caribbean. For much of the 20th century, more than nine in ten people across the region identified as Catholic. However, over the past few decades, that number has dropped significantly, to fewer than one in seven.

Things get even more stark when you break it down to the national levels. In less than 45 years, the report notes, some countries have seen their Catholic population fall by more than 40 percent.

What lies behind Latin America losing its religion? Well, as the report lays out, it often isn't really a loss. A significant number of people raised Catholic have converted to Protestant churches, usually  evangelical Pentecostal churches. In many countries, the report found, more than 50 percent of Protestants had been raised Catholic.

Their reasons for leaving one Christian church and joining another are complicated: Across the region, the report found, more than 80 percent of former Catholics who had joined the Protestant church did so because they were seeking a "personal connection with God," while 69 percent said they enjoyed the new style of worship at their new church. Fifty-eight percent said they had converted after the church reached out to them, the report noted.


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