Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Counting Catholics

So, the Philadelphia Inquirer's "Catholic Crossroads" mega-series continues apace, with tomorrow as its last day.

And, just in case you're curious, transubstantiation is being polled.

The paper has been advertising a Thursday interview with Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden for which questions are being sought. The interview with the bishop -- a former undersecretary of the Congregation for Religious -- will be cut into a podcast available the same day.

Yet again, good on Galante -- our local paragon of the good church-press relationship.

Anyways, in the midst of the Sunday mega-piece on the US church, there was a very fun and interesting bit on how the world's dioceses come up with their totals of the faithful.

Especially for those of us who don't devote all that much thought to it, it's worth noting.
No one knows how many are devout believers warming a pew on Sundays. For accounting purposes, however, it doesn't matter. Baptism in the faith is the only requirement for inclusion on the rolls.

The church's world total is fed by many sources, from government censuses to parish registries. But also added in are sincere estimates, guesses and outright exaggerations, depending on the country, the diocese, and even the pastor doing the reporting.

For instance, in Africa - the only continent where Catholicism is said to be making dramatic gains - some dioceses are so poor, unstructured and understaffed that they can merely approximate memberships. Consider the Archdiocese of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which reports a Catholic membership that is exactly 30 percent of the city's population.

In Europe and Latin America, many national censuses ask households about religious affiliation, although not whether they practice that faith. Consequently, the numbers do not begin to reflect the serious ground the church has been losing among worshippers.

In the United States, the Census Bureau last asked about religion in 1930. So the job of counting Catholics falls to the 193 dioceses (including 15 Eastern Rite eparchies). Each year pastors provide the diocese with tallies of Catholics in their parishes. The figure usually is based on parish registration, sacramental records, and average Mass attendance every October.

However, many are asked to go a step further and take a stab at estimating the number of Catholics in their bailiwicks who are not registered.

That can be legitimate methodology, Gautier said, particularly where immigrants are a significant presence. Many newly arrived Latino and Asian Catholics do not sign up with a parish, either because it is not customary in their homelands, or because they are seasonal or illegal residents.

Occasionally, the guesswork produces "something gigantic," she said. "I have a problem with that."

The Philadelphia Archdiocese approximates its unregistered Catholics at 234,415 - about 16 percent of its total count.

Although Robert J. Miller, director of the archdiocesan Office for Research and Planning, called the estimates "pretty conservative," they have softened, if not masked, a 7 percent decline in registered members during the last three decades.