One of the major reasons why a Latin American was elected the first pope from the New World almost five years ago is the long-term decline of the flock in the most Catholic region on earth.

Just five decades ago, in 1970, Latin America was 92 per cent Catholic. Mexicans, Argentines and Brazilians, for example, were born into the Church and lived out their lives as Catholics, although most of them were not regular churchgoers. However, after a half-century of precipitous decline, Latin America, home to 39 per cent of the world’s 1.3 billion faithful, will no longer be majority Catholic by 2030.

A new survey by the respected Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro finds Latin America now to be only 59 per cent Catholic, down from 80 per cent in 1995. The landmark 2014 Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape, for which I was the lead academic consultant, reported that the region was 69 per cent Catholic.

It’s in this context that cardinals elected one of their confrères from Latin America with the hope that, if Europe is lost, there still might be time to halt or even reverse ecclesial haemorrhaging in the New World.

The Latinobarómetro poll is the first to reveal that, almost five years into his papacy, the Argentine Pontiff has been unable to stanch the bleeding. In 2013, the year he became Pope, 67 per cent of Latin Americans told Chilean pollsters they were Catholic. Thus, the percentage of Latin Americans who are Catholic has dropped by eight points since Francis was elected.

Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t contain detailed data on each country polled. In the one nation for which is there is more detail, Chile, the decline is even more dramatic. During Francis’s tenure, Chile has become a nation in which Catholics no longer constitute the majority of the population. In 2013, the region’s most prosperous country was 56 per cent Catholic, and in the span of just four short years the figure has dropped to 45 per cent, giving Chile the distinction of being the second South American nation, after Uruguay, to lose its Catholic majority.

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