Before you decide whether it’s worth reading this blog post or not, there are two things you might want to know about me. The first is that I have a PhD which included rigorous work analysing statistical data. The second is that I have a track record in analysing Catholic statistics across England and Wales: previously on my website but these days I’m working via this blog. Now read on!
How many Catholics are there in England and Wales? That’s not a very straightforward question. First of all, what is it that you are trying to measure?
One possibility is to count “canonical Catholics” – those who are Catholics according to canon law. Once a person is baptised as Catholic, or a person already baptised is formally received into the Catholic Church, that person is “a Catholic”. For a time, there was a provision in canon law that you could defect from the Catholic Faith by a “formal act” – that would be officially joining another religious community or giving official notice that you no longer wanted to be reckoned as a Catholic. But that provision is no longer in canon law; and so of all the souls baptised or received as Catholics, relatively few people have ever left the canonical status of being bound as “a Catholic”.
What we do have easy access to, are the statistics on the number of baptisms which take place and receptions into the Catholic faith. I’m sure an actuary could make some reasonable estimates for the death rate and the immigration and emigration rate of Catholics and, rooted on the solid figures for baptism, we could come to some a reasonable estimate of the number of “canonical Catholics” in England and Wales – but would that be a useful number?
Another quantity we can easily measure is attendance at weekend masses. The bishops have decreed that an annual count should take place over the four weekends of October but this is subject to ambiguity, and may not even be done consistently. Several factors are ill defined:
- If October begins on a Sunday, do we start counting that weekend or the following weekend?
- If October begins on a Thursday or Friday and contains five weekends, do we omit the first or the last?
- Do we count only adults, or children?
- If children, do we include babies?
- If babies, do we include the unborn babies of visibly pregnant parishioners? (I don’t think anyone seriously would, but theologically, they are also human persons attending Mass.)
- Do we omit double-counting persons attending a second Mass that weekend including the priest himself, sacristans, etc?
Even when we resolve the questions of when we count and who should be included, that number will include non-Catholics at Mass for various reasons (supportive parents or spouses, prospective converts) and occasionally those non-regular churchgoers attending a special Mass for family reasons (a baptism at weekend Mass or honouring a Mass intention for a special anniversary). If that parish requires children preparing for First Communion to register attendance for a few months, in a period that runs over October, this will also affect the figures.
But for the rest of this post I’m going to consider a third measure which is significant: those people who, when asked the question, “What religion are you?” would spontaneously say, “I’m a Catholic.” This data isn’t available from the 10-yearly census of the entire population which takes place in the UK: although there has been a religion question, all “Christians” are classed together. Fortunately, there’s also something called the British Social Attitudes Survey. This is based on a much smaller sample but it does ask questions about religion; and it’s possible to log in and search the database to find out how religion tracks with different regions of Great Britain, with the age of the respondents, and so on.
To use the database, you first need to register (it’s free and simple). Once you have logged in, you need to choose the Survey Years you wish to search. Then from the Contents List, choose RELIGION and from that menu, RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION (or for some older datasets, you may need RELIGIOUS OBSERVATION). You need to click the category on “Respondent’s Religion” if you wish to distinguish Catholics from others – this will then appear in the “Working List” on the top left of your screen. You can then choose any other religious or other data you wish to cross-reference with Catholicism, and this will also be added to the Working List.
Next, go to the Working List in the top left corner and click on “R’s religion”. Near the top right corner, click on “CrossTabs”. You can then choose any category on the screen to sort the data, e.g. sex, age, or any additional questions on your Working List. DON’T click “R’s religion” on the right side, which would only cross-reference the data with itself. When you have made your selection, scroll to the bottom of the page and click “View Results”.
The most recent survey accessible is from 2016. It included a question on how often the Respondent attended worship. For the Catholics, 23.3% went at least once a week; 19.5% went once or twice a month; 24.9% went ‘rarely’ (pooling once or twice a year with ‘less often’) and 31.6% of self-declared Catholics ‘never’ attend worship.
Selecting by sex, we see that 6.6% of male respondents and 10.6% of female respondents (across the whole of the UK) self-identified as Catholic; very similar figures occur in the 2015 survey, indicating a consistent likelihood for women rather than men to retain their sense of religious identity (there is no strong reason to assume that fewer boys than girls were baptised).
The highest proportion of Catholics is found in Scotland and NW England, where nearly 14% of the population self-identify as Catholics. Here in Wales, we have the lowest proportion of self-identifying Catholics anywhere in Great Britain, with only 5.0%.
Within the Archdiocese of Cardiff, the Mass Attendance reported across the diocese was 14,497 in 2016 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), down from 18,046 in 2009. Across the whole Welsh Province, deducting parish figures from Herefordshire, Mass Attendance in 2016 was 25,890. With an estimated national population of 3.168 million, this makes the Catholics actually attending Mass 0.82% of the total population; less than one in five of those who self-identify as Catholic therefore attend Mass frequently.
The database does not allow filtering by three variables at the same time, so it’s not possible to cross-check how many of the Catholics who report weekly attendance are in Wales – and that level of refinement would probably draw on such small numbers of respondents that the result would begin to lose accuracy. But across all members of any religion in Wales, only 10.2% claim to attend worship weekly or more often.
When religious identity is binned by age (15-24, 25-34 etc.) we find that across Great Britain, for those identifying as Anglicans or “other Christians”, the older you are, the more likely you are to identify as such. But for Catholics, this peaks in the 45-54 group with 10.4% identifying as Catholic. For all other ages 25-74, roughly 9% call themselves Catholic, and for the youngest group, only 5.3% of 15-24 year olds label themselves as such.
Across all religions, when attendance at worship is binned by age group, there is a surprising spike where 18.9% of 35-44 year olds attend weekly or more often. Every other age bin 15-64 fluctuates around 11% weekly attendance by little more than one percentage point. It would be fascinating to explore the reasons – liberation from child-care, mid-life crisis, or immigration of observant professionals?
There is a great deal more data available; just in the 2016 dataset, it is possible to analyse Catholics according to education, employment, political stance and marital status. The religious questions asked in other years include belief in the Devil, anti-religious prejudice and experience of conversion, support for faith schools, and politicians’ religious viewpoints or lack thereof. Here is a vast and free resource for researchers to delight in. Enjoy!