Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Statistics And Damned Lies About The Statistics

I'm finally getting caught up with a lot of reading material.  I find it utterly amazing how much material I can miss when occupational responsibilities interrupt my preplanned scheduleOr maybe it's just that the last week or so was unusually dense in Catholic stories.  A couple of stories currently running in the National Catholic Reporter deal with statistical analysis of the Catholic populations of Brazil and the US.  As far as our younger generations are concerned they tell the same story.  Youth are disconnecting at what should be perceived with alarm, but apparently isn't because somehow World Youth Day proves the opposite. At least WYD does for those who choose not see what's plain to anyone who actually attends a parish church.

The following is not the full article from John Allen.  I only used the first  part that deals with the Brazilian statistics.  One thing I noticed is that John actually defines 'secularism' in this piece.  In this particular Brazilian study it's used to reference people who have ditched their formal religious ties.

Secularism, a new papal contender and Catholic humor

Two-thirds of the world's Catholic population today is in the southern hemisphere, a share that should reach three-quarters by mid-century. To discern where the church is headed, it's critical to keep an eye on what's bubbling down south, and two recent stories thus deserve to be on the global Catholic radar screen.
The first comes out of Brazil; the second, from the Philippines. Both are Catholic superpowers, among the top four Catholic countries in terms of population, and both are destined to be pace-setters in the church of the 21st century.  (This is assuming any leaders pass the Opus Dei test.  In that case there will be no pace setters.)

In Brazil, a respected national research institute, the Getulio Vargas Foundation, has published a new study suggesting that secularism -- defined, in this case, as throwing in the towel on religious faith and practice -- is making rapid inroads among Brazilian youth. Based on 200,000 interviews conducted for Brazil's 2010 census, the study concludes that the Catholic share of Brazil's population has dropped to 68 percent, its lowest level since census data began to be collected in 1872, in part because of the rising percentage of youth who disclaim any religious affiliation.

The key finding is this: The number of people under 20 who say they follow no religion is growing three times more quickly than among those over 50, with 9 percent of young Brazilians saying they belong to no religion.
Those results track with other data from Brazil. In 2007, Fr. Jose Oscar Beozzo, who directs the Center for Evangelizing Services and Popular Education in São Paulo, said that between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of the Brazilian population that identifies itself as Protestant, with most of that number being Pentecostal, rose from 12 percent to 17 percent. In the same period, the percentage with no religious affiliation went from 0.7 percent to 7.3 percent, a tenfold increase.

"This is the infinitely more important movement in the Brazilian religious situation," Beozzo said at the time.
In numeric terms, Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, with its 163 million Catholics representing 85 percent of the population. Those, however, are baptismal totals, while the new study reflects the share who actually identify as Catholic. Among other things, the difference between the two indicates that 17 percent of Brazilians today were born Catholic but have subsequently left the church. (That 17% is 27+ million people. This amounts to the entire Catholic populations of the UK, Australia, Ireland, and Canada.)
Competing explanations abound, with various commentators pointing to some version of at least four theories:
  • Brazil's economic boom, which has convinced a share of today's youth that they simply don't need religion.
  • Alleged remoteness and arrogance on the part of Catholic officialdom, combined with elements of church teaching that don't play well with progressive-minded young people, including the church's positions on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. (Not surprisingly, that's especially popular with the liberal wing of the Brazilian church.) (Notice how John does not use 'alleged' in the following bullet point.)
  • An over-concentration on politics by the Brazilian church, especially what's left of the liberation theology movement, with the result that young people today are spiritually adrift. (That tends to be the favorite account on the Catholic right.)
  • The raging priest shortage in Brazil, coupled with difficulties in mobilizing laity to compensate for it. (That's often what one hears from front-line pastoral workers in the country.) (and the one that holds the most truth.)
Whichever account one favors, the basic picture seems clear: A growing share of the younger generation in Brazil is being effectively secularized. (No, they are leaving institutional religions which is not necessarily the same as 'being effectively secularized.'---Unless one believes the sacred is the sole province of religion.)
This could have implications beyond the country's borders, because given Brazil's new economic and political muscle, trends there pack a broader regional and international punch.

Two thoughts about what this means:
First, the $64,000 question about religion in the southern hemisphere has long been whether economic and political progress necessarily goes hand-in-hand with secularization. There doesn't appear to be any ironclad law; China's economic growth in the last quarter-century, for instance, has been accompanied by a spiritual boom. (Which is not the same as a religious boom. Allen purposely mixes up these two concepts a lot and always to his advantage as he does here.)

 Yet it would seem to be the case in Brazil, which prompts the following thought: Latin America, in some ways, is closest to the historical patterns of Europe, in that the Catholic Church traditionally was a state-imposed monopoly. If secularism takes hold in Latin America more than other regions, might that be the final confirmation that relying on state power is, over the long run, always hazardous to the faith? (No, it could just as easily mean that Catholicism is failing not just as a religious system but also as a spiritual system.)

Second, the idée fixe of the church's leadership class in the West has become the defense of Catholic identity, as a means of protecting the church against being assimilated by secularism. In sociological terms, it's a "politics of identity," which is a classic defense mechanism for embattled subcultures. Developments in Brazil suggest that similar politics of identity could take shape in other parts of the Catholic world, giving that trend even more staying power. (And it will fail miserably because it's being used to hide the fact Catholicism is fast becoming a bankrupt spiritual system.)


 It seems to me that John Allen, and he is not alone in doing this, consistently fails to distinguish just what he means by secularism, religion, and spirituality.  He was forced to define secularism in this article because the researchers for this study of Brazilian Catholics did it for him.  Their definition is that secularists are essentially unaffiliated with any religious denomination.  That is a pretty precise definition, at least for the parameters of this study.  The researchers apparently didn't offer the category 'spiritual but not religious' which is the fastest growing category in most Western countries.  My guess is that a significant portion of Brazilian youth would have accepted that self definition had it been offered.  

There is a very important message packed into that category and it's not a message that has much to do with secularization.  The message is that the 'spiritual but not religious' find mainstream religions spiritually bankrupt.  Religions are failing miserably at what they purport to exist for and that's nurture and fuel humanities spiritual quest for meaning and connection.  Religious identity will not substitute for this failure for very many people.  Maybe this is just a message that Catholics like Allen literally can not hear from the data, but you know what, if they don't start getting this message pretty soon, it won't matter if the white European clique that runs the Vatican ever gives way to the Southern brothers.  It will be too late to do any good. 

For those who haven't gotten enough statistics the Vatican released it's yearly mission statement on global Catholic demographics. Here's one paragraph that bears bad tidings if the front line pastoral workers in Brazil are correct about the raging priest shortage.  If you do venture over to read this study, North America is lumped in with South America so it's hard to tell what's really going on in either continent.  The European statistics are uniformly down--except for the number of laity per priest.

 The number of Catholics per priest in the world increased by 27 units, average 2,876. We have increases on every continent except Asia: Africa (+25); America (+32); Asia (-30); Europe (+16); Oceania (+25).


  1. Hi, Colleen--I discovered your blog about six months ago and never miss an article. You ROCK!

    I could not agree more that "religion" and "spirituality" describe two different and, in my own experience, rarely congruent dimensions of the human condition.

    By sheer coincidence, I came across a perfect companion piece to Allen's lament while waiting in the doctor's office last week: a National Geographic article entitled "Brazil's Girl Power". No surprise, the actual situation in Brazil is more complex, more nuanced, than Allen's simple bullet points.

    Available at the link below, this absolutely riveting article examines demographics in Brazil, where the birth rate has plummeted in the last 40 years, to just under 2 children per family at present. Despite the overwhelming Catholic majority, the absence of legal abortions, and the lack of a government policy promoting birth control, women have quietly and with dignity taken back control of their reproductive destinies.

    A sample from the article:
    "...the first time I ever heard the phrase 'a fábrica está fechada', (the [baby] factory is closed) it was from a 69-year-old retired schoolteacher who had her tubes tied in 1972, after her third child was born. This woman had three sisters. Every one of them underwent a ligation. Yes, they were all Catholic. Yes, the church hierarchy disapproved. No, none of them much cared; they were women of faith, but in some matters the male clergy is perhaps not wholly equipped to discern the true will of God."

    Thanks again for your always informative viewpoints.

    Link to the article:

  2. Charles, thanks for your interest in the blog, but especially for the link to the NatGeo article.

    It's pretty amazing to digest that this incredible demographic change came without real government support and against Church opposition. With two of the three traditional cultural supports against this trend this must mean mamma supported the choices of these women. Girl power all the way.

  3. "...the Opus Dei test..."

    ...the what?