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One of the 9 percent

I write as one of the 9.2 percent of adult Catholics in the Philippines who, according to the recent Social Weather Stations survey, have sometimes thought of leaving the Catholic Church. These instances occurred mostly in the “bad old days” before Cardinal Jaime Sin gave a new face to the Archdiocese of Manila. There have been similar moments since then, but I have learned to see Christ through the mist as His disciples did on the Lake of Galilee, and to recognize that with all of its faults, it is the Catholic Church that gives me direct contact with Him. Even the Gospels in which I find Him were written within the local church communities of the first century and authenticated by the broader Church.

The 9-percent figure, which is not nearly as high as some might have expected, may be simply a sign of growing maturity in the faith. I recall a bright young medical student whom I met many years ago in what was then Communist Yugoslavia. She remarked that fidelity to the faith, despite government opposition and discrimination, was for their parents a matter of tradition, but “for my generation it is a personal choice.”

Aside from the 9 percent, other findings in the survey are interesting and challenging. First, and unlike the United States, for example, there seems to be no significant number who consider themselves “irreligious” or “with no religious affiliation.” Given the number of Filipinos today proclaiming themselves atheists or agnostics, one wonders whether the “religious identification” survey question made room for them.

Still more challenging is the finding that “only” 37 percent of Filipinos of voting age (18 and above) who identify themselves as Catholics report that they attend church (nagsimba  o  sumamba) weekly or more often. To me this is puzzling, not because of the decline from the 64 percent reported in 1991 but because of a little arithmetic.

Let us look at it. The total Philippine household population at the time of the 2010 census was 92,097,978, of which about 55,500,000 were of voting age (18 years and above). The latter was the population which SWS sampled with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. It found in its sample that 81 percent identified themselves as Catholics, and of these Catholics 37 percent said that they attend church weekly. Slotting in the real numbers, we find that this works out at 16,633,360 adult Catholics attending church every week. If it means attending Mass, it also means that on the average, each of the 7,406 priests in the country offers Mass each week for 2,246 adults.

But it is not only adults who attend church, as every priest knows! If we add the children aged five and above, and assume the same proportion of Catholics and church-attenders, we end up with each priest saying Mass for 3,280 each week.

I find it incredible that, even assuming 37-percent Mass attendance, the average priest is saying Mass for 3,280 people each week. I may never have done that even once in many years as a priest. When I was fully active pastorally, I would offer two Masses on Sunday for perhaps 500 people at Payatas, and one on Wednesday for 30 or so at the Cenacle Retreat House. Parish priests in large urban parishes may reach 3,200 per week, but as an average, across the country it seems impossible. Even more impossible would it have been to reach 64 percent of Catholics weekly in 1991, with fewer priests.

“This is a puzzlement,” but not new. I recall discussing the same discrepancy between the survey responses on this matter and the arithmetic with Fr. Frank Lynch back in the 1960s. It is not just random numbers; the responses to the statement about leaving the Church run parallel to other measures such as whether one considers himself/herself religious, and frequency of church attendance. We are measuring something here, but it is not clear what it is. Of course, it is typical that each survey raises more questions than it answers, which is why the sociologist will never be out of work!

Several defenders of the faith have rushed to the barricades in response to the idea that church attendance among Catholic adults is down to 37 percent from 64 percent in 1991, declaring it “unbelievable” in view of the full churches and new parishes being established. Some have suggested that it is all a conspiracy hatched in Malacañang to bring down the moral influence of the Church in view of the coming elections.

The accusation of bias and manipulating data is an old one, of course, which SWS faces routinely each election year. Let me just say that SWS lives or dies by its credibility and is not likely to throw away the respect that it has earned over 28 years by participating in some harebrained Palace conspiracy. (Disclosure: Dr. Mahar Mangahas, SWS founder, is an old friend with whom I trade Irish jokes; I have also blessed SWS offices.)

To get back to the point, the full churches and new parishes are encouraging, indeed, but should be seen in the light of population growth. Since 1991 the Philippine population has increased by almost 50 percent, from some 63 million to close to 100 million now.

In conclusion, rather than rushing to the barricades, Church people might think seriously of a simple check on the SWS findings. They might count the churchgoers, unannounced, in a given parish or diocese, or better still, all of Metro Manila, on a given Sunday and compare the results with the census data.

John Carroll, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and sociologist, long-time resident of the Philippines, and founding director of what is now the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues.

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