Apr 28, 2022 - World

The decline of Catholicism in Latin America

Percentage of people in Latin American countries who identify with Catholicism
Data: Latinobarómetro; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

Catholicism is losing its grip in Latin America as the percentage of people who say they identify as evangelical has grown, data shows.

Why it matters: The Catholic Church has historically influenced Latin American laws and politics. Its decline is starting to impact some countries' policies, even as other faiths grow.

  • For example, several countries have recently decriminalized abortion, recognized gay marriage and pushed for transgender rights.

By the numbers: Overall, the number of Latin Americans who said they don’t have a religion jumped by six percentage points from 2010 to 2020, according to the most recent Latinobarómetro, the premier regional annual survey.

  • The percentage of people who identify as Catholic dropped from 70% in 2010 to 57% in 2020, Latinobarómetro found.

Zoom in:  Evangelical faiths have grown. In Brazil, the number of survey respondents who identified as evangelical went from 3% in 2000 to 18% in 2010 and 22% in 2020, the study shows. In Guatemala, those figures went from 19% to 34% to 41%.

  • A growing Evangelical caucus recently tried to pass measures fully banning same sex marriage and making abortion carry up to 10 years jail time. The law was scrapped after the president said he wouldn't sign.

Between the lines: The shift in religious beliefs is partly because young people have more faiths to choose from, religious studies professor Andrew Chesnut of Virginia Commonwealth University said yesterday at a conference in Mexico City.

  • He added that Protestant and other Christian faiths have strengthened outreach, as have alternate forms of spiritualism, such as New Age movements that incorporate Mesoamerican traditions.
  • The Latinobarómetro study shows trust in the Catholic Church is also at an historic low, most notably in Argentina and Uruguay, where the church has been accused of turning a blind eye to past dictatorships’ human rights abuses, and in Chile, where clergy sex abuse scandals blew up in recent years.
  • Pope Francis, the first Latin American to lead the Catholic church, even apologized over the “irreparable damage” from the latter cases after a visit to Chile in 2018.

Yes, but: Catholicism remains socially ingrained in Latin American culture.

  • Many still celebrate Catholic traditions like Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day).

Zoom out: Latinos in the U.S. have also been moving away from Catholicism in recent years, Pew Research Center data shows, as secularism grows worldwide.

Methodology: Latinobarómetro conducted 20,204 interviews in 18 countries between Oct. 26, 2020 and Apr. 26, 2021. The margin of error is 3% for country-specific data and 1% for the region-wide data.

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