Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 13 April 2013


The results of the latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey on leaving the Church (for Catholics) and church attendance (for both Catholics and non-Catholics) seem to have elicited misguided and, for me, dismaying responses from some clergy.

Take the survey question, addressed to Catholics, on whether they agree or disagree with the following statement:  “Paminsan-minsan  iniisip  ko  na  baka  umalis  ako  sa  Simbahang  Katoliko  (Sometimes I think I might leave the Catholic Church).” The choices of answers were: strongly agree, somewhat agree, undecided whether to agree or disagree, somewhat disagree, and strongly disagree.

SWS found that 9.2 percent of the respondents either strongly (2.5 percent) or somewhat (6.7 percent) agreed. And that result got a lot of attention, with the casual reader tending to forget the “paminsan-minsan  (sometimes)” part of the statement.

I can’t see what the hullabaloo is all about. I myself, a convert to Catholicism, have at times despaired of some acts or omissions of the Church and the thought of leaving it (not Christianity, mind you) has crossed my mind.  But very fleetingly. Because at the same time, its positive attributes also cross my mind—that an institution that has survived corrupt and even murderous leaders from the inside, as well as all attempts from the outside to destroy it over the past 2,000 years or so, is certainly worth sticking to and supporting.

Besides, 85.6 percent of the Catholic respondents either strongly (74.2 percent) or somewhat (11.4 percent) disagreed, meaning that they haven’t thought of leaving the Church at all, with the rest ( 5.2 percent) remaining undecided. That definitely constitutes a supermajority. And yet some quarters took umbrage—unjustifiably—because they obviously mistook the thinking (“sometimes” at that) for the act. And argued that the number of church enterers compensated for the leavers, so there was no net loss (something to that effect). They must be reminded that the survey was not counting leavers, but only those sometimes thinking of it.

But that doesn’t mean that the Church can rest on its laurels, because as it turns out, those who “sometimes” think of leaving the Church are mostly those who also say that they have “no religious beliefs” (how can one be a Catholic and have no religious beliefs?).  Which profile points to what the Church must do in order to nip in the bud any thoughts of leaving it: stronger catechesis, and Masses to which the churchgoer wants to go, rather than is obliged to go with gritted teeth.

Which brings us to the matter of church attendance. And this has to be cause for the greatest concern for us in the Church, both clergy and laity. Never mind that Catholics apparently attend Mass less frequently than those of other Christian and non-Christian faiths attend services. The really disturbing result is that: Only 37 percent of Catholics go to Mass once a week—a very significant and alarming decrease from the 64 percent who did so in 1991 (the first time SWS asked the question). That should cause alarm bells to ring, and an enormous amount of soul-searching on our (the Church) part. Right? Because the fact that church attendance among non-Catholics is also decreasing—the so-called “secularization” phenomenon, world-wide—is nothing but cold comfort.

Alas. Instead of the alarm bells and soul-searching, the reaction seems to be an outright denial that a problem even exists, that the-survey-results-are-wrong (which evokes the standard answer of the politician who is not doing well in the polls).

Why is there no problem? Why must the survey results be wrong? Because, according to my very dear Archbishop Angel Lagdameo of Iloilo and others, the churches are filled to the brim every Sunday, priests sometimes have to celebrate five to six Masses on that day, more and more parishes/dioceses are being created.  These facts are incompatible, they say, with the survey result of declining church attendance.  Ergo, the survey result is wrong.

But are they incompatible? Is it wrong? Let’s do a a little arithmetic (all data courtesy of NSCB’s Jessa Encarnacion). Start with the 2013 population: 97,353,290 (midyear estimate).  Multiply by the percentage of the population that is Catholic: 80.58 percent (as of 2010). The product, 78,447,280, represents the number of Catholics we have in the Philippines today. Multiply that by 37 percent to get the number of Catholics who go to church/worship at least once a week, and you get 29.0 million. Add the weighted average of the 24 percent of Catholics who attend Mass 2-3 times a month and the 23 percent who attend once a month, which gives us another 18.7 million.  In other words, on any given Sunday, 47.7 million Catholics will be attending Mass. This will not include the other 16 percent of Catholics who say they go to Mass less than once a month (10 percent) or once a year or less (6 percent).

Hang in there, Reader. The end is near. Let us now assume that each municipality and city (rounded up to 1,600) has an average of four places of worship. These 47.7 million Filipino Catholics will now be distributed to over 6,400 places of worship every Sunday—for an average of 7,453 per church or place of worship.  Now assume seven Masses per church on Sunday (including anticipated Masses), and you find that each location must accommodate more than 1,000 worshipers at each Mass (1,065 would be more accurate).

Bottom line: Churches crowded with worshipers and the results of the SWS survey are completely compatible. One does not negate the other. So let us stop playing ostrich, and face the problem.