Well, last week, Andrew Brown missed the point, and this week he’s missing questions...
He writes about assessing the true number of Catholics in the UK, no easy task. He gives three ways of finding out this figure. He starts by showing how baptism is not a good marker as people leave religions. Baptismal figures (estimated from “Religion one was brought up in” – this does seem a fair proxy) come out at 14% of the population baptised as Catholics. He then presents a false dichotomy. The remaining two ways, he says, are to ask people what their religion is, or to ask Catholic priests about the numbers of their flocks. I think there would be more than two ways to find out this figure – but before that, let’s first start with a definition. What counts as a Catholic? This isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds, the comedian Dara O’Briain puts it well:
He may be a “bad” Catholic, but I hope we can all agree, that for the purposes of counting the number of Catholics in the UK (yes, I know he’s Irish, but is a more entertaining and amusing way of illustrating my point), a “bad” Catholic like this shouldn’t be counted.
The blog post finishes:
"The wide range of answers is significant in two ways. The first is – to labour the point – that none has been obtained by counting baptisms. At the very least, they measure the people prepared to say, when asked, that they are Roman Catholics. The second is that this carries a wide range of meanings. It certainly doesn't mean that there are 4 or 5 million people who agree with the pope about everything. But that's not how religions work in any case. It's certainly not the way atheism works."
This is true, people may well call them selves Catholics (more on this in a bit) – but how much of the Catholic Churches teaching can be dropped before the individual stops being counted as a Catholic, along the lines in the video above? This is more a rhetorical question. It’s not going to be as simple as a checklist, with x% and above of belief in Catholic dogma meaning a “good” Catholic, and anything less a "bad" Catholic. I do think at the very least, however, there should be some sort of belief in God. Also, some practice of the religion. It’s a difficult one. I don’t profess to know the answer.
This is where we get on to my third option. We could ask: Do you regularly practice a religion? If so, which religion, and how often? This is, of course, won’t be perfect either. Many people may slip out of the habit of going to Church, praying etc but still regard themselves as “good” Catholics.
The two options of Brown’s are likely to give us higher answers. It’s a peculiarity of the UK, that whilst we are becoming one of the most secular countries in the world, we’re not quite up for leaving “Religion” blank on forms. The British Humanist Association recently highlighted this. People who nominally call themselves Catholics may not fit the definition of a Catholic. This is important, as for example, they don't believe any dogma; don't go to Mass; are happy for men to have sex with men; gay couples to adopt children; women to be ordained; contraception to be worn; and stem cell research to go forward, so would it really be meaningful for them to be included in the numbers?
Asking Priests the size of their congregations can also be tricky – is it just Mass attendance. Does he include the husband and children of the lady who comes to Mass each week, but the rest of the family are somewhat more lax with their Catholicism?
To be sure, it is hard to estimate the numbers of people that hold a belief system. But let’s not make it harder by restricting avenues of finding this out (like basing figures on active practicing of a religion), even if they give lower numbers than would be liked. Church attendance is falling across the board.
However, we must concede that when Richard Dawkins says:
"Adolf Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Or at least he was as much a Roman Catholic as the 5 million so-called Roman Catholics in this country today. For Hitler never renounced his baptismal Catholicism, which was doubtless the criterion for counting the 5 million alleged British Catholics today. You cannot have it both ways. Either you have 5 million British Catholics, in which case you have to have Hitler too. Or Hitler was not a Catholic, in which case you have to give us an honest figure for the number of genuine Catholics in Britain today – the number who really believe Jesus turns himself into a wafer, as the former Professor Ratzinger presumably does."
It’s not entirely fair, as if we do count the number of baptisms, we get a higher number of UK Catholics than the Catholic Church use. However, is it unfair to include Hitler among the number of the world’s deceased Catholics? Well, he never renounced his faith, and he did say stuff like this:
"I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so" [Adolph Hitler, to Gen. Gerhard Engel, 1941]
So no, it's not unfair at all, here's maybe what Richard Dawkins should have said:
"Adolf Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Or at least he was as much a Roman Catholic as the 5 million so-called Roman Catholics in this country today. For Hitler called himself a Catholic, which was doubtless the criterion for counting the 5 million alleged British Catholics today. You cannot have it both ways. Either you have 5 million British Catholics, in which case you have to have Hitler too. Or Hitler was not a Catholic, in which case you have to give us an honest figure for the number of genuine Catholics in Britain today – the number who really believe Jesus turns himself into a wafer, as the former Professor Ratzinger presumably does."
He was certainly more of a Catholic than Dara O’Briain. As for the half of Catholics who aren't aware that Jesus turns himself into a wafer, I'm not sure.