Perhaps given Catholicism’s relatively deep roots in Spanish-speaking countries and its close links to many cultural practices, some Hispanic Americans experience the faith less as a relationship with God and more as an element of their ethnicity, to be expressed or set aside as they choose. If this is the case, it’s not surprising that many Hispanics abandon Christianity entirely or leave Catholicism in search of thicker gruel.
Aside from this admittedly speculative factor, Latino Catholics seem to leave the Church for the same reasons as other Catholics. When Pew researchers asked ex-Catholic Americans (of all ethnicities) in 2009 why they had left the Church, they offered respondents a list of items different from the one they offered Latinos in the more recent report—yet drifting away and ceasing to believe Catholic teachings were again commonly cited. Another reason to assume similar motives for switching religions: Hispanic Catholics and Protestants closely resemble their non-Hispanic white counterparts on just about every indicator of religious practice and belief that Pew measures. It seems reasonable to assume that these inter-ethnic commonalities extend to individuals’ reasons for remaining in or leaving a particular religion.
All of which is to say that the question of why Latinos leave the Church is less about Latinos than about the Church.
What should the Church do about all this? To serve and attract Latino Catholics, offer Mass in Spanish (when possible)—almost half of Latino Catholics prefer to attend Spanish-language Masses—and continue to reach out to new immigrants. But first and foremost, Latinos and others need not new programs targeted to their demographic but a living, salvific relationship with God. This may sound elementary, but as Sherry Weddell has documented, “the majority of adult Catholics are not even certain that a personal relationship with God is possible.” To return to the language of the Pew report, “gradually drifting away” from the Church is the foreseeable result of this uncertainty. So the Church must go back to the basics: preaching the Gospel, teaching members to pray, helping them hear and follow and love God in their daily lives. Better catechesis, more reverent liturgies, and all the rest matter, too, but apart from Jesus they will do nothing.