A ‘Catholic’ flight from Mexican altars?

Back in 2006 when the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life rolled out its massive “Spirit and Power” survey — a 10-nation survey of modern Pentecostalism — many of the most stunning statistics in its pages were linked to the rising number of Pentecostal Christians who could be found in Catholic pews and the stunningly high numbers of believers who had left the Church of Rome altogether.

The Latin American Herald Tribune recently ran a news feature that shows that this reality is slowing sinking for many journalists. However, this story contains a crucial and sadly predictable hole that makes it hard for readers to grasp the true size and importance of this trend. Here is the top of the report:

MEXICO CITY – More than 1,000 Mexicans left the Catholic Church every day over the last decade, adding up to some 4 million fallen-away Catholics between 2000 and 2010, sociologist and historian Roberto Blancarte told Efe.

Blancarte, one of the nation’s outstanding specialists on religious subjects, said that one of the main conclusions to be drawn from the 2010 census is that Mexico is no longer a predominantly Catholic country and has become a nation of religious pluralism. According to figures from the census taken last year, out of a total 112 million Mexicans, 92.9 million are Catholics, 14.1 million belong to Protestant Christian denominations, and a lower number are devotees of Islam, Judaism and various oriental doctrines.”

This trend has been growing for 60 years, which leads to some amazing long-term statistics:

In 1950, 98.21 percent of Mexicans said they were Catholic, in 1960 the percentage dropped to 96.47 percent, in 1970 to 96.17 percent, in 1980 to 92.62 percent, in 1990 the percentage dropped to 89.69 percent, in 2000 the country was only 88 percent Catholic, and now that percentage is lower still at 83.9 percent.

This signifies that the last decade has seen a drop of more than 4 percentage points, equivalent to almost 4 million people or an average of 1,300 people a day leaving the Catholic Church. In contrast, the number of Protestants and Evangelicals went from 1.28 percent in 1950 to almost 8 percent of the total population in 2010, without counting Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.

Now, it should be noted that Blancarte goes on to blame this decline on the usual factors — most of them complaints made by Catholic progressives about the church’s need to change its teachings on the sexual revolution of the 1960s. He also complains about “boring liturgies,” which is a swipe that could come from those influenced by Pentecostalism and modern Protestant megachurches (or television).

So what is missing?

You guessed it. The story does not offer a shred of information about who is departing the Catholic fold, in terms of whether the faith is losing people who are active or inactive, Catholics who attend Mass daily or those who rarely if ever attend at all. I have seen anecdotal evidence that Protestantism is winning the hearts and minds of many people from Catholic families that were, in fact, highly active in their parishes. Their departures will be felt much more than the departures of those who have not darkened a church door in decades.

So the exit numbers are there in the data and in the story. That’s step one. But what do they mean? To what degree are they changing the face of Mexico and its long dominant faith?

Once again, it is the practice of the faith that matters the most. Are we talking about lapsed Catholics? Easter Catholics? Sunday morning Catholics? Catholics who go to confession? Who is leaving the fold? This is, of course, the question that needs to be asked in order to make a serious attempt at reporting the “why” in this story, as in “why” are they departing?

There is no way to answer any of these essential questions, based on this story.

Photo: From Marilyn’s Gallery of Mexico, located at Picasa Web.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris

    These Mexicans left the Catholic Church for the reasons we Americans deem important!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    OK, my snark filter caught that.

    What do you mean? What factors are being missed that journalists could, in fact, research and cover?

  • Chris B

    Any discussion of how the Latin American Church has never produced sufficent priestly vocations? Ah,no. Any discussion of how all a Pentacostal congregation needs to get up and running is “a call and a hall”? Nope. Any discussion of Mexico’s anti-clerical history? Uh-uh. Any discussion of the role liberation theology might play? Zip. How about the “prosperity Gospel” that many (though not all) Pentacostal preachers promote? No, don’t see that either. But it’s GOTTA be about sex, right? Isn’t everything? Pathetic.

  • Appalachian Prof

    When my family left over 35 years ago (in America, not Mexico) it was for something more fervent and intense, not for something more liberal. Though my dad was a lector, and my mom a children’s catechist, nobody called to find out why. Catholic parishes can be unbelievably impersonal. I’ve not seen much coverage of that aspect of things.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Most Americans have no idea of the persecution the Catholic Church has endured in Mexico over the past 200 years that has so weakened her. According to a Mexican I consulted, for a hundred years in modern times it has been illegal for the Catholic Church to catechise. The government also restricted the assignment of priests in parts of Mexico.
    In fact the persecution was so great that a rebellion took place called the Cristeros War–which virtually no Americans have heard of in a country so close to us.
    Fortunately, Hollywood (of all places) may correct the history record. A movie has been made called “Cristiada” starring Andy Garcia and Peter O’Toole. There is a trailor for the movie on the internet (probably Youtube). The movie apparently portrays the courage, convictions, and great faith of Mexican Catholics while standing up to a dictatorial secular government of Marxist stripe.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I just looked at the trailer for “Cristiada” again. It also stars one of Mexico’s leading actors Eduardo Verastegui who has become as famous for his pro-life activities as for his acting. There are other big name American and Mexican stars in it. It will be interesting to see how the American media and the rest of Hollywood treats the movie.
    If the movie is anything like the trailer every Catholic and every American who values religious freedom should see it. However, maybe it will go the way of the great French Catholic movie “Of Gods and Men” (the faith-filled story of the Trappist monks beheaded by Islamic terrorists).
    It won all sorts of top European awards, but even in foreign Oscar categories it was dissed by Hollywood.

  • Julia

    There’s another movie, The Fugitive, about those times starring Henry Fonda and based on The Power and the Glory, a novel by Graham Greene. Directed by John Ford and also starring Delores delRio.


    Here’s the link to the current movie:


  • Julia

    If there are 83.9% folks saying they are Catholic, doesn’t indicate that Mexico is still predominantly Catholic?

    Another example of poor understanding of statistics?

  • Julia


    . . . doesn’t that indicate that Mexico is still predominantly Catholic?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    That depends on how you define terms.

    My point precisely.

  • Bain Wellington

    For a corrective to the overblown apocalyptic vision of Blancarte (who naively claims, on the basis of various untested assumptions, that the Catholic Church “is destined to be abandoned”), see this thoughtful piece from 2004 by a priest and former Catholic missionary which raises – and sketches some answers to – all the questions that the Latin American Herald Tribune ignores.

  • Julia

    If anybody is still reading – Wikipedia in its entry on Fr Miguel Pro, executed by the Mexican government in the early 20th century, has this about the 1917 Mexican constitution – note the date when most of the anti-Catholic measures were lifted:

    . . . a new constitution for the country had been signed (1917). Five articles of the 1917 Constitution of Mexico were particularly aimed at suppression of the Catholic Church. Article 3 mandated secular education in schools, prohibiting the Church from participating in primary and secondary education. Article 5 outlawed monastic religious orders. Article 24 forbade public worship outside of church buildings, while Article 27 restricted religious organizations’ rights to own property. Finally, Article 130 took away basic civil rights of members of the clergy: priests and religious were prevented from wearing their habits, were denied the right to vote, and were not permitted to comment on public affairs in the press. Most of the anti-clerical provisions of the constitution were removed in 1998.

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miguel_Pro

    Wikipedia on the 1917 constitution:

    Articles 3, 5, 24, 27, and 130 were anticlerical and, as originally formulated, seriously restricted religious freedoms,[8] and attempts to enforce the articles strictly by President Plutarco Calles in 1926 led to the civil war known as the Cristero War.[8]

    source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1917_Constitution_of_Mexico

    At this link scroll down to the section about the anti-clerical provisions and amendments to them over the years that have not completely eliminated the restrictions on religious freedom, including the right to teach religion even privately.


    Article 3 likewise prohibited ministers or religious groups from aiding the poor, engaging in scientific research, and spreading their teachings.[8] The constitution prohibited churches to own property and transferred all church property to the state – thus making all houses of worship state property.[8]

    The constitution denied churches any kind of legal status and allowed local legislators to limit the number of ministers, (essentially giving the state the ability to ban religion) and banned any ministers not born in Mexico.[8] It denied ministers freedom of association, the right to vote and freedom of speech, prohibiting them and religious publications from criticising the law or government.[8]

    I wonder if any of these provisions are enforced against the Protestant missionaries – since ministers not born in Mexico are forbidden. Are they allowed to own their own church buildings? Are lay Protestant missionaries allowed if they aren’t ordained? This would make a good in-depth article as a follow-up to the article about Catholic flight.