Asian and Asian American Catholicism

It’s no surprise that part of my interest in sociology is autobiographical, and this week’s selection of a new pope brought me back to some of my own history with the Catholic Church. One of my most recent cultural encounters with Catholicism was at my father’s funeral. While he was not a religious person for most of his life (according to his friend) the last decade or so included weekly attendance at St. Basil’s with one of his siblings and his family.   

St. Basil’s is one of the main Catholic churches for Los Angelenos and is well-positioned for walking from Koreatown. During my two days there, I witnessed specific Korean prayers and even modes of prayer that I had not seen in my years growing up in mixed-ethnic Catholic churches in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Three years later, I’m reminded of how significant Catholicism is for many Korean immigrants and many Koreans.

The Korean Catholic population as with many Asian Catholics is quite large but not nearly as large as that of Latin America and Europe. According to this infographic from the New York Times, 483 million of the world’s Catholics are Latin American (from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean) constituting a 41% share of the world’s Catholic population. There are more Catholics in Latin America than there are people in the United States. Europe has a 24% share and no other continent is larger than 15% share from there. It’s sensible then that the first non-European pope would come from Latin America. And it’s perhaps shrewd decision-making that the Argentinian pope is the child of Italian immigrants. Interestingly, if you take the figures from the NYT for the specific nations with Catholic populations exceeding 10 million, Brazil is the giant. At 150 million Catholics, they take up 31% of all Catholics in Latin America and 13% of all Catholics in the world. No other nation has a 6% share of the world population (the US and the Philippines hold this distinction).

Given my interest in Asian America, I immediately wanted to know more about the Asian scene of Catholicism and its possible relevance to US Asian Catholics. I didn’t have time to find every Catholic figure for the same year in every Asian country, so I focused only on the top 6 countries that have been sending immigrants to the US since 1965: China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. This is a graph I made of the Catholic distribution across these nations, with an additional placeholder for all other Asian Catholics that are not from the aforementioned nations:


The main 6 countries add up to more than 2.8 billion people in 2010 including the two most populous countries, China and India. Given their size even the small percentage that claim to be Catholic is quite large with 15 million in China (1.2% of the population) and 19 million (1.6%) in India. To put this in perspective, there are about as many Catholics in China compared to Canada, and more than in Angola, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Tanzania, and Uganda. From a US perspective there are only 3 states with populations that are larger than the Catholic populations of China and India: California, New York, Texas. Of the remaining Asian nations, the Catholic giant in Asia is the Philippines at 72 million and this constitutes about 78% of that nation’s population, and 53% of all Asian Catholics. Vietnam and Korea have a 6 and 3 percent share of Catholics in their nations respectively and slightly more than 500,000 Catholics reside in Japan (a 0.4% share of all Asian Catholics). Here are two images, one is a photo I took while traveling in Seoul of a Korean Mary and Jesus, and the other is a Vietnamese Mary and Jesus.













When we turn to the American scene, Pew’s recent survey of Asian Americans provides some new estimates on the population of Catholics. These estimates are conservative as they reflect the largest six groups in the US who together form about 85% of all Asian Americans. Of  the 15 million Asian Americans in these groups, about 3.4 million identify as Catholic, or about 22% of all Asian Americans. This is slightly higher than the Pew number since we’re only looking at the largest six groups. Unlike their counterparts in Asia, the size of different Asian American Catholics varies considerably. Filipino American Catholics clearly dominate Asian American Catholicism at 65%. But Vietnamese American Catholics take up a 15% share of Asian American Catholics making them the second largest in the US (while their counterparts overseas are ranked #4). Chinese American Catholics mirror their peers in People’s Republic at rank 3 while Koreans climb up to 4th place, or 5% of Catholic Asian America. Indian Catholics retreat to 5th place compared to their counterparts in India at 2nd place. Japanese American Catholics numbering at less than 53,000 is similar to their counterparts in the last position among the top six groups.


Encountering Asian American Catholics is somewhat of a rarity given these figures, and their practices vary based on the heritage they retain from the countries that many of the immigrants bring with them. Whether it is transmitted effectively to the next generation remains to be seen. One of the practices that interests sociologists is that of civic engagement. To what extent are Asian American Catholics participating in American civil society and within ethnic or Catholic communities? A few studies have emerged on the remittances sent by Filipino Catholics, as well as the larger scope of Asian American Catholic voluntarism relative to other religious groups (a couple of these were studies conducted by me and sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund). These studies suggest that Asian American Catholics are similarly active in civic activities whether religious or secular, and in some instances financial support across the Pacific flows through religious networks. Ties between Catholic and non-Catholic local communities as well as transnational ties between US and non-US Catholic communities continue a pattern we have seen historically in the American Catholic experience. While travel and communication technology have allowed many of these ties to be stronger or more efficient, the ethos remains the same. The difference appears to be the source of Catholic migration which is much more Latin American and steadily Asian as well.

Edit 3/18/13: figures taken largely from New York Times and Pew Research Center surveys

Edit 3/20/13: Readers should note that these figures do not indicate the proportion of Catholics per Asian nation or Asian American ethnic group; they reflect fractions of the total population of Catholics in Asia or Asian America. For example, 53% of all Catholics in Asia are from the Philippines.

In editing the pie graphs I discovered some important discrepancies in the numbers reported by the New York Times and the Pew Research Centers. Stay tuned for a post that reveals differences in the portrait of Catholic diversity based on different sets of data.

The Three Segregations and Asian America

A recurring conversation in sociology is that of segregation. While we are decades away from Jim Crow, the weight of the evidence since the 1980s is that while our population is diversifying, we’re not necessarily content with living alongside those who appear different from us. In most of the research to date, segregation has often inferred race as the main marker of difference. But a few years ago, new research was emerging that suggested income was now gaining in prominence. With the availability of a new interactive online tool, we’re able to see how income segregation appears today. Here’s a screenshot of the Chicago area based on the website, (Read on to see why I chose Chicago for this example):

Using income alone, we see a pattern familiar to those who understand racial segregation. The more urbanized areas of Chicago have concentrated poverty whereas the outlying areas generally show significantly higher income levels. Substitute low income with racial minority status and the picture looks very similar. So which one is it, racial segregation or income segregation? This is the big debate. Recently published research by sociologist Lincoln Quillian provides a new perspective that essentially shows us that it’s both.

Back in 1993 a landmark book, American Apartheid,

revealed the persistence of racial segregation and its effects on minority populations. Racial residential segregation places minorities in concentrated environments of poverty which are linked to higher criminal activity, violence, and poorer schools (not to mention inadequate access to good health care, and nutritious food). As Quillian summarizes, “Massey’s (1990) core point [is] that segregation and minority poverty rates interact, or intensify in combination, to produce concentrated poverty” (p.355). This point is more formally defined as two processes: racial segregation and class segregation within race. Look again at the map of Chicago and you can almost see this argument; if greater income is coupled with white racial status, then the higher income levels tend to be more white. Within the poorer census tracts, so the argument goes, there will be segregation between poorer minorities and richer minorities. But Quillian’s study, which uses Chicago census tracts as his main example, goes one step further and provides the missing methodological key to Massey’s study: “the segregation of high- and middle-income members of other racial groups from blacks and Hispanics” (355). Stated differently, to understand how concentrated urban poverty and racial segregation work, we have to account for the difference in poverty rates between the different racial groups. It’s not only that whites and blacks are segregated, nor that richer blacks are slightly segregated from poorer blacks. It is also that whites have much less poverty as well. Since white poverty rates are much lower than blacks, neighborhoods with middle-class blacks are more likely to have poorer neighbors (regardless of race) than if the neighborhood was middle-class and white. The “three segregations” serve to distance whites from blacks (and Hispanics) generally and conversely amplifies the combination of black segregation and black poverty. This is a powerful explanation. We learn from this study that the underlying logic of racial and class segregation still go together despite increasing diversity and calls for colorblindness (which presumes that race doesn’t matter in social and individual outcomes). The integration of nonwhites and whites is very selective and coupled with perceived class of racial minorities. [If readers can’t follow my explanation, here’s another summary of the study).

Given my interest in Asian Americans, I wondered how they fit in this equation. I’ll need to contact Dr. Quillian for the additional analyses he did that accounted for Asian Americans as a separate group (p.365), but I suspect that the other observations we know about this group will explain their role pretty quickly. We know that Asian American poverty is higher than the national average (see pp.34-35 on link to report) (according to the Census Bureau, Asian American poverty increased 46% between 2002 and 2010), while at the same time Asian American household incomes are quite high. This is because Asian Americans are a very diverse group and due to the specific kinds of migration patterns (high-skilled employment, political asylum etc.) some arrive with a lot of resources and others have very little. More than half of the Asian population is foreign-born so these factors still play a sizable role in their poverty or lack thereof. But Asian Americans are also fewer in number compared to other minorities and (this is the big one) they are not often embedded in concentrated communities whether rich or poor. The Chinatowns and Koreatown are still here but they don’t contain a large number of Asians (note that each of these enclaves is a specific ethnic group; “pan-Asian” enclaves don’t really exist) in part because there aren’t as many of them to begin with. So if I could guess, Asian American segregation is fairly rare and the coupling of concentrated poverty and racial segregation doesn’t result in the same amplified results we see for blacks and increasingly for some Hispanics.

As I reflect on it some more I also wonder if predominantly white neighborhoods will absorb Asians and more readily accept their presence as a symbolic gesture toward inclusivity, a means of justifying colorblindness. Given the high incomes of many Asian Americans this seems like a real possibility given the way the three segregations play out. Note that Quillian did not describe segregation from whites, but rather from “non-black neighbors” and I suspect this is because there are just enough Asian Americans in those neighborhoods that one cannot call these exclusively white neighborhoods.

But what about Asian and black residential integration? From a news piece that appeared yesterday, I’m intrigued at the possibility of what might happen in New York. Apparently Chinatown is too expensive for some Chinese to move in; these migrants need a more affordable place to live. Their next choice is east Harlem. Will entry into a predominantly black community perhaps reshape the segregation patterns we see (at least in this city), or will it reflect more of the same, only now including poor Asian Americans? Here’s a screenshot of the richblockpoorblocks site for Harlem:

Gender, Culture and Suicide in Asia and Asian America

Fellow blogger and sociologist Mark Regnerus’ recent post on suicide rates and ideation prompted me to reflect on suicide in parts of Asia and in Asian America from the news I have been reading of late. Perhaps the most notable is the one that showed up in the New York Times citing an unprecedented increase in suicide among elderly Korean women. As the article suggests, some of this is prompted by the structural changes in Korean society that have not been adapted by all members of society due to the cultural differences brought on by structural changes. In the US, our social security system is a kind of broad social contract between generations of working Americans. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, etc. workers in America help cover some of the expenses for the retired. In Korea, the contract is more specific to the family: children, usually sons, are expected to provide the economic safety net for their parents directly. Put differently, earlier generations invested in their children with no private savings set aside for them. Thus, when we combine the other demographic dynamics in Korea (i.e. declining marital and fertility rates) we have a recipe for disaster; while the standard of living in South Korea is incredibly high, the benefits of that improvement have not resulted in unilateral better retirements for the elderly. If we follow the traditional logic, the fact that many elderly feel abandoned suggests that the highly prosperous working generation no longer feels obligated to assist their parents or perhaps they cannot do so while maintaining a new and higher standard of living. We could also ask why the government is not stepping in and supporting these elderly. According to the article the government safety net was only just recently developed (1988) and is apparently inadequate in day-to-day coverage of expenses. And there are these cultural loopholes in this system where adult children deemed “capable” of providing support to parents locks out access to social security to those elderly. In such situations (and apparently it’s growing more pervasive), many elderly Koreans find no other recourse but to take their lives when their children cannot (or will not) help, and the state fails as well.   

It turns out that this trend toward elderly suicide is more complicated for Asian Americans. According to this mini-guide on the basics of suicide, the Asian American rate is lower than other groups in general. But the picture is mixed for the elderly. According to this graph from the Centers for Disease Control, elderly white non-Hispanic males commit suicide at a much higher rate than men of other groups, including Asian Americans.  However, among elderly women, Asian Americans are more likely to commit suicide than any other group. Asian American elderly men are still more likely to commit suicide than women, but it’s noteworthy that suicide attempts are higher for women here. The question remains: why? What might be at work in the lives of elderly Asian American women that increases the likelihood of suicide? One wonders if it is a similar sense of felt abandonment by their children, many of whom managed to be very successful materially.

Suicide Rates Among Persons Ages 65 Years and Older, by Race/Ethnicity and Sex, United States, 2005-2009

Since the CDC does not provide demographic information on suicide ideation, planning and actual attempts, we can turn to research by social scientists in their paper published in the Archives of Suicide Research. There they found that among Asian American adult respondents, women more often reported attempting suicide compared to their male counterparts (3.5% v. 1.5%). Most strikingly, US-born Asian American women reported a much higher attempted suicide (compared to men, both US born and immigrant), suicidal planning, and ideation compared to immigrant Asian American women, US born Asian American men, and immigrant Asian American men. When the researchers account for other possible factors that influence suicidal thinking, they find that US-born Asian American women are significantly more likely to report suicidal thoughts compared to their male counterparts. Still a glance at the effects shows that while the differences aren’t significant statistically-speaking, there is a clear gender and nativity dynamic at work.

If suicide ideation results in part from stressful conditions, one would think that immigrant women would feel more stress and consequently be more prone to suicide ideation. The researchers suggest that the higher native-born suicide ideation rate may be a result of socio-political factors such as gender trauma, racial trauma or some combination. A year after this study was published, social scientists Janice Cheng and associates used the same data to examine this very possibility. They confirmed that racial trauma (defined as perceived discrimination) along with gender (that is, being female), family conflict and depressive symptoms contribute to Asian American suicidal ideation. Put together, these two studies suggest that native born Asian American women struggle not only with their minority racial status but also their particular position in their families. If most elderly Asian American women are immigrants, then we have a gendered multigenerational problem: both the immigrant elderly and their native-born daughters struggle with suicidal ideation. And while separated by the Pacific, today’s elderly in Korea are perhaps similar to the elderly Asian Americans in that their strategies for survival were built on assumptions that are not shared by their children who have succeeded in contexts that reward individualistic attitudes. The adult daughters in these contexts face similar dilemmas in making sense of the expectations ingrained at an early age from their parents and the world of their peers. Perhaps it’s not so surprising then that family conflict is linked to suicide ideation for Asian American women. Hopefully, these kinds of studies are reaching the right ears to aid Asian and Asian American elderly women find meaning and belonging in a world that has restructured right before their eyes.

Asian Americans and Interfaith Marriages

It’s a festive time of year for Asian Americans. As many readers know, the Lunar New Year celebration kicked off last week, and I hear that in China, the celebration lasts a good deal more than 1 day due to the mass migrations that occur for work-related reasons. For example, last year a PBS documentary called “Last Train Home” focused on the journeys of Chinese workers who often leave their rural villages to travel hundreds of miles for work and return on holidays with their earnings.

And of course this past Thursday was Valentine’s Day. On my Facebook newsfeed, the Pew research Center re-published a news piece from 2009, where they reported on religiously mixed marriages using their massive Religious Landscape Survey (RLS) conducted in 2007. Here’s the main graph:

The most intriguing for me, with my interest in Asian Americans was the rate of interreligious marriage by race. Interreligious marriages have been the topic of some debate among sociologist of religion. Given our nation’s emphasis on religious tolerance, interfaith marriages seem to be one indication of this freedom in our culture. But sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s observations from over a hundred interviews of interfaith marriages suggested that these interfaith marriages are a mixed blessing. In America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity

he notes that the most often stated strategy for dealing with religious difference between spouses was not to talk things out and compromise. Rather it was to not talk about it at all. Couples who have the most direct access to the worldview and practices of another faith often fail to connect on the spiritual. Indeed author Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book discusses this in greater detail in her interviews with married and divorced interfaith men and women.

As I noted before, advanced survey techniques allowed Pew to conduct a national survey of Asian Americans in 2012 in several major Asian languages plus English. This was a significant improvement over the RLS since that one was only conducted in English and Spanish. So among the 2,536 respondents who reported some Asian heritage in the RLS, one commonality is that the sample consists primarily of English-preferred speakers. This excludes those Asian American households described as “limited English proficient” (LEP). The Asian Pacific American Legal Center used Census data to show that 32% of Asian Americans 5 and older are LEP. The range is quite dramatic by ethnic group:

So how does this affect something like interreligious marriage rates? I took the Asian American sample of the RLS and computed the interreligious marriage rate among these respondents using the same approach that Pew did for the Asian American survey. The results are here:

The differences are noticeable. In the Figure to the left, about 25% of English-proficient (EP) Asian American Protestants in 2007 were married to someone of a different faith, whereas in the figure just below, 19% of Asian Americans (accounting for possible LEP individuals) were interreligiously married or in partnership. While 30% of English-speaking Asian American Catholics were in an interfaith relationship 19% of Asian Americans (accounting for LEP) were so. This represents the biggest gap between the two surveys for respondents of Asian American background. The one consistent pattern is Hindu interfaith marriages. A modest 2% difference appears between EP Asian American Hindus and a broader LEP-accessible sample of Hindu Asian Americans. Notably regardless of survey, Asian American Buddhists had the highest rate of interfaith marriage compared to Catholics, Hindus, and Protestants.

This pattern of greater interfaith marriage among EP Asian Americans makes sense when we apply sociological theories of assimilation to explain the difference between the two surveys. For Asian Americans, perhaps with the exception of Asian Indians, English ability is a function of length of residence (if one is an immigrant, like 59% of Asian Americans ) or simply growing up in the US. If one is more acculturated, religious fidelity likely weakens in the aggregate. So we would expect that a survey of English-proficient Asian Americans will usually show a higher rate of interfaith marriage compared to a sample that includes LEP respondents.

Intriguing also is the notable difference between the general population results and the Asian American sample (just compare the top graph with the ones below). EP Protestant Asian Americans are less intermarried compared to American Protestants in general (30% compared to 32-46%). Most dramatically, 65% of unaffiliated Americans are in a mixed marriage, but only 47% of EP Asian American nonaffiliates are.

Further, while 55% of American Buddhists are in an interfaith relationship, only 39% of EP Asian American Buddhists are in mixed marriages. This is now a second illustration of the sociological difference between Asian and non-Asian Buddhists in the US which we learn through improved survey methods. Previously I noted that the white Buddhist population is more like 25-30% of all Buddhists in the US, and not 53% as the RLS shows.

The one remaining curiosity left unexplained is Catholic EP Asian Americans. While 22% of American Catholics are in an interfaith relationship, 30% of Catholic EP Asian Americans are. Using the assimilation framework we would expect the rate to be a good deal higher for non-Asian Catholics. Latinos do make up a substantial minority but I don’t think they are big enough to sway the figures we see. So I ask: why are assimilated Asian American Catholics in interfaith relationships more so than their American peers overall? Send your speculations!

In short, this season has ushered in some time to reflect on relationships, mixed-religious marriage being one form of it. In the American context, these marriages theoretically hold much promise, but often fall short of realizing those ideals of mutual understanding and growth. Asian Americans play a big part in the interfaith marriage world given the large presence of non-Christian religions among them (which we can verify with better survey tools). Figuring out how to make interfaith marriages work is perhaps a more noticeable issue among Asian Americans than other groups; perhaps the stories of thriving relationships will emerge from them in the years to come.

Happy (belated) Year of the Snake!