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In El Paso, a Mirror of Catholicism's Challenges

Catholicism remains the religion of choice for most people in El Paso, but membership in the church has declined. How the church adapts to modern societal beliefs will be reflected by what happens to its membership there.

Parishoners attend a Friday service at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in El Paso.
El PASO — Under the watchful gaze of St. Jude and the Virgen de Guadalupe statues on Wednesday, religion and border culture meshed at central El Paso’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

“A la bio, a la bao, a la bim bom ba! Jesus! Jesus! Ra Ra Ra!” parishioners sang, modifying a chant commonly heard at soccer matches into a celebration of their faith in the Roman Catholic Church.

It was a stark contrast to the Mass celebrated in the same 77-year-old church the Friday before, when an older generation of worshipers sat through a traditional ceremony, praying for forgiveness and guidance under the direction of a Spanish-speaking priest. 

Catholicism remains the religion of choice for most people in this border city. But membership in the church here has followed a national trend, declining as people switched faiths or become unaffiliated altogether.

While Pope Francis continues to espouse his progressive beliefs that the Roman Catholic Church be more welcoming, scholars and religious leaders here acknowledge that how the church adapts to modern societal beliefs will be reflected by what happens to its membership in places like El Paso.

Earlier this month at a synod, the traditional gathering of Catholic bishops held in the Vatican, Pope Francis and some in the assembly suggested the church should be more welcoming toward gays and lesbians who the convention said have “gifts and qualities to offer” Christians. That draft language was later scaled back, then rejected, after pushback from more conservative members.

Though the progressive language was not adopted, analysts and Catholics in El Paso say the proposition started a dialogue on issues that eventually will have to be addressed.

“We really have a shift in thinking. We have demographic shifts, we have shifts in an aging population,” said Professor Ann Branan Horak, the director for religious studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have a lot of very frightened people right now who don’t want the world to change. But it is going to change, it is changing, and I think that change is inevitable.” In 2013, El Paso County’s population was 827,700, an increase of about 27,000 from 2010. About 81 percent of the people here are Hispanic.

A Pew Research Center study released in May found that one in four Hispanics nationally now identify as former Catholics.

In 2010, the most recent year for which there is data, about 345,950 adherents in El Paso identified as Catholics, down from about 350,000 a decade earlier. Almost as many — 338,500 — claim no religious affiliation, according to The Association of Religious Data Archives. In 1990, 393,500 identified as Catholic.

Horak did not predict a mass exodus if the church stays true to its traditional teachings. Catholics sift through what they believe and what they think is outdated, she said, and doing so allows them to remain comfortable being Catholic.

“From my own experience, I see many young people who identify as Catholic culturally but they don’t always follow all the cultural beliefs,” she said. “No matter what the student’s racial background is, certainly the younger student is much more open to same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships.”

A Pew Research Study conducted earlier this year supported her observations. The study showed that 85 percent of people from age 18 to 29 who identified as Catholic said society should accept homosexuality. Older generations were less likely to accept it.

Perceptions of the church’s evolution — or the need for it — will determine if membership continues to slip, Horak said.

“People leave the Catholic Church because they become more liberal and they become unaffiliated,” she said. “Or they leave the Catholic Church because they think the Catholic Church has become too liberal and they become evangelical.”

To some, El Paso is an appropriate staging area. In 2011, city leaders became embroiled in controversy when they promoted a city ordinance expanding health benefits to unmarried employees’ domestic partners, including gays and lesbians. That shows that times are changing here, said Carlos Salais, a board member of El Paso Sun City Pride, a group that promotes the city’s L.G.B.T. community.

 “Being a border town, being a predominantly Catholic community, it is very hard to get people out of the mentality that being gay or lesbian or bi is wrong,” he said. “There is still a long way to go, but overall I think El Paso has made strides.”

He also lends support to Horak’s contention that youth is a factor in what Catholics believe.

“I am completely open about” being gay, he said. “I never had that thought of leaving the church, maybe because I was raised in the Catholic culture. I don’t see eye-to-eye with a lot of the teachings of the Catholic religion, but it’s a religion that I was born into, and it’s something I believe in.”

Bishop Mark Seitz, the leader of the El Paso Catholic Diocese, acknowledged that the church must constantly work to increase, or even keep, parishioners. But he said societal changes should not dictate the church’s direction.

“If you are a follower of the one who described himself as the ‘Good Shepherd who would leave the 99 in search of one lamb that was lost,’ then you are concerned that even one would lose his way,” he said. “At the same time, I am convinced that the Church would be doing no one a service if she were to base her teachings upon the changing winds of public opinion. Our first task is to remain faithful to the truth revealed by Jesus and entrusted to the Church.”

He also acknowledged that retaining its young members is a focus of the diocese.

“They want a Church of witnesses that inspire them and give them an ideal to seek for themselves,” he said. “The Church also needs to be more effective in being present where young people are, like in social media. We are working on this.” 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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