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Nearly 4 in 10 Catholics are Latin American, but the latest study released by Pew indicates the religious landscape in Latin countries is changing.

Almost 40% of Catholics, 425 million or so, hail from Latin America; for the first time, a Latin American holds the papacy.  However, this has not stemmed the tide of Latin Americans leaving the Catholic Church.  According to a recent survey aimed at examining the religious beliefs, practices and affiliations in 18 nations and the US territory of Puerto Rico, the number of those identifying themselves as Catholic has been in decline.  Over the last generation, Latin Americans have begun to move away from Catholicism and toward Protestantism.  Those who decline to join a different faith are simply discarding religious belief, the survey found.

These findings represent a major shift for the region, as it has been considered a stronghold for Catholicism.  During the 1960s, 9 in 10 Latin Americans identified themselves as Catholic and nearly the same number (84%) said they had a Catholic upbringing, but the recent survey, released on November 13th, found that less than 7 in 10 (69%) still self-identify as Catholic.  This is due to a large shift to conservative Protestantism (almost 20% now identify as Protestant), and 8% of Latin Americans identifying as agnostic or without religious affiliation.  While there were many reasons given by respondents for abandoning their Catholic faith, most commonly it was that individuals wanted a closer, more personal relationship with God.  Those who wanted a new style of worship and greater moral guidance followed this closely.

The failing influence of the Church has contributed to the passage of laws making abortion legal, allowing gay marriage and decriminalizing marijuana in traditionally Catholic Latin American nations.  Debating and adopting these social issues, which have the capacity to be especially contentious, would not have been possible in those countries as little as a generation ago.

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