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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