Revisiting Catholicism in Asia

In a recent post I shared some of the recent statistics reported by the New York Times regarding the change in the Catholic population around the world. Through the friendly comments I received from Dr. Conrad Hackett of the Pew Research Center and a couple other sociologists, I learned that Pew has their own statistics on the global Catholic population. This got to me as I discovered that the numbers I used to create my graphs were largely taken from the New York Times article, which I learned do not rely on the Pew numbers. So how different are they and what does that tell us?

By sheer population size Filipinos dominate, and the NYT and Pew numbers confirm this even though they vary by up to 4 million. The rates for Japanese and Vietnamese Catholics is also fairly similar. The big differences where the NYT shows the higher estimate are China (15 million vs. 9 million from the Pew data), and India (19 million vs. 10.6 million). Pew estimates a higher percentage of Korean Catholics (5 million vs. 1.4 million from the NYT data). What this suggests then is that using the Pew data, Korean and Vietnamese Catholic populations are essentially equal in size whereas the NYT data suggests that Korean Catholics are the smaller sibling to their Vietnamese brethren. And if the nationality of an Asian Pope were chosen based on population, the Pew data suggests that (besides the Philippines of course) it would be a toss-up between China and India, followed by a toss-up between Korea and Vietnam. Based on the NYT data, the Asian Pope would likely originate from the Philippines, followed by India, then China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

While knowing the raw estimates is interesting, the reference point for those estimates illuminates different impressions. What do we learn when we take the estimates of the Catholic population in each nation relative to that nation’s overall population. In other words, how Catholic are some of these countries in Asian? As a percentage of Catholics per nation, clearly Filipinos dominate as usual, no surprises there. The big difference is between Vietnam and South Korea: based on the NYT data, Vietnam has the higher percentage of its population Catholic at 6%. This is slightly lower than the Pew estimate. But Pew’s figure for Korean Catholics is way higher than the NYT figures (11% vs. 3% of the population) and thus takes the (distant) second place position. To learn more about the proportion of Catholics in different Asian countries, go to this link to a cool interactive map of Christianity in Asia.

Finally, rather than calculating the percentage of Catholics in a nation, the raw estimate of the population of Catholics can be used to compare it with all Catholics in the Asia Pacific region. I illustrated this using the NYT data in the previous post, and I now show it side-by-side with the Pew version. I thought this was interesting to observe because the number of Catholics per nation tells us different things based on our reference point. The 76 million Filipino Catholics (according to the Pew data) make up 81% of all Filipinos, but only 58% of all Asian Catholics. It’s still clearly the lion’s share and it’s particularly notable given that when we’re talking about all Catholics in Asia, we’re including millions of believers from China and India. Despite being a much less populous nation than these two giants, Filipino Catholics are still the majority. The Filipino percentage of Asian Catholics is a bit smaller using the NYT data, at 53%. The rank ordering is pretty much the same for China, India, and Japan’s Catholics (second, third and sixth place respectively). The difference between the two figures shows up most for the Korean and Vietnamese Catholics. Pew again suggests that the share of all Asian Catholics that are from these two countries is about the same (4% for Korea and 4.3% for Vietnam), while the NYT data places Vietnamese Catholics as clearly a larger presence among Asian Catholics (6% vs. 3% for Korean Catholics).

While the big picture hasn’t changed, new sources of data allow us to get a fuller picture of the growing presence of Catholicism in Asia. The quality difference in that data might shift the picture to some degree, but given the fairly close approximations on most of the figures from the NYT and Pew, these appear to be relatively reliable. The consistency of Pew’s track record in getting the best data (oftentimes collecting it themselves which is no small feat) has me leaning more in favor of their sources rather than the NYT. Other observations welcome!


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.

Thank you, Papa: Comments on a Unique Papal Succession

Lots of us are thinking and writing with an unusual mixture of heavy heart and curiosity today, with the news of the unusual retirement of a pope. There’s gratefulness for his service and sadness at its forthcoming conclusion, yet without the grief that typically accompanies the news of a new and needed conclave. Since there’s no shortage of content flying around the Internet today, I’ll keep my comments fairly brief. (Well, they were brief when I started…)

For people who’ve disliked Benedict XVI, my hunch is that you shouldn’t read “good news” into this. Benedict XVI’s resignation appears to be because of the global “New Evangelization” he encouraged, in humble recognition that he lacks the energy and health to lead and shepherd it. That’s how I read his letter.

So here are a few interesting facts, a few things to keep in mind, and a few hunches about what’s next. (I could be wrong on a few of these details.)

  • It’s pretty interesting that the last time this occurred (1415) was about a hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, and yet two-thirds of Church history still occurred before that time.
  • Only cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, and they typically elect one of their own (although I believe any bishop is technically eligible). One fellow will have turned 80 two days before Benedict XVI’s retirement. According to Wikipedia, which is not infallible (pun intended), there are 118 cardinals eligible to vote.
  • The rules around election change upon occasion, and apparently have so recently. Although John Paul II edited the rules to allow for a simple majority to elect the pope in case a super-majority (2/3) could not be reached after numerous efforts—that is, the presence of an entrenched minority—Benedict XVI chose to revert to the previous rules. So, a solid consensus is required here. But I don’t think they will have trouble.
  • It’s not obvious to me that particular cardinals wish to be pope. Besides constituting a strike against your candidacy, I suspect the converse is far more likely: many greatly fear it. These are men with monumental obligations already—and not young—and hence the prospect of becoming pope is likely met with considerable trepidation. Bottom line: this is not at all like American Idol. Be glad about that.
  • Pope Benedict will apparently return to being known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger after Feb 28. I would’ve guessed “Bishop of Rome, Emeritus.” He intends to retire to a monastery, Castel Gandolfo presumably, and I strongly suspect will live largely outside the public eye. He will not participate in the conclave.
  • Pope John Paul II was appointed a bishop at the young age of 38 and a cardinal at 47. That’s very uncommon. For comparison, the youngest cardinal today is 53, an Indian, and the first cardinal from the Syro-Malankar rite (in contrast with the Latin rite, the most familiar of them).
  • As in 2005, there will be plenty of speculation—more than ever, given social media—about whether the next pope will be non-European. The odds remain against it, just like they remain against any particular cardinal’s election. It will happen eventually. Maybe this time, maybe not. An American? Probably more unlikely. Many of us stateside love our Cardinal Dolan, and think he’s a fine evangelist of the Faith; his election, too, remains unlikely, of course.
  • Benedict XVI’s reasoning behind his resignation, as articulated in his letter, suggests one of the few signals here to the college of Cardinals, and that is to elect a more youthful pope. Of course it’s a bit humorous to talk of youth when your youngest member is 53. But my hunch is that our next pope will be no older than age 70. How many cardinals are under 70? 43, by my count. Five Americans are among them. Nine others will be 70 upon his resignation.
  • Gerhard Ludwig Müller currently occupies the position from which Benedict XVI become Pope, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But Müller is not a cardinal, I believe, and therefore unlikely to be selected. His successor is an American, William Levada, but unlikely to be selected due to age (he’s 76).
  • Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, is a plausible European candidate, especially if the New Evangelization weighs considerably on the conclave. (I predict it will.) He’s an accomplished book author, as was Ratzinger, and is 68 years old.
  • If you’re looking for both youth and longevity (as a cardinal), there are 11 cardinals who are under age 70 and were appointed as such by John Paul II. There are no Americans among them. All of the American cardinals under 70 were appointed by Benedict XVI. Which is fine and not a knock against any of them.
  • I guess if I had to place a hedge around a baker’s dozen names of cardinals under 70 that I think reflect the spirit of (and experience with) the New Evangelization, some very overtly so, I think it would include these, in no particular order: Robles Ortega, Tagle, Dolan, Schönborn, Bozanic, Turkson, Braz de Aviz, Betori, Filoni, Gracias, Erdö, Pengo, and Onaiyekau. Although this narrows the 118 down to 13, my logic here is complicated, includes some gut instincts, and I’m frankly probably wrong. But hey, I’ll be in good company, since most observers will be incorrect in their guesses.
  • Importantly, I know nothing—literally zippo—of the interpersonal relationships the cardinals have with each other, and who might be considered “frontrunners” for their longstanding respect, warm relationships, etc. Keep an eye on Whispers in the Loggia.

And in the end I’ll be pleased with whomever is selected. Indeed, that attracted me to Catholicism in the first place–that I didn’t have to discern and decide so much as to defer to the remarkable wisdom of others. While days like today feel bittersweet, my wife remarked how neat it is to be feeling such sentiment together with Catholics around the world. Our pastor is leaving, and we anticipate his absence with some sadness, yet mixed with confidence.


What’s the difference between a Pastor and a Priest?

Protestant-Catholic similarities and distinctions have been a theme of mine in several blog posts, and that is the case today as well. I have tried not to be too evangelical about such things, but rather enlightening, because the process of shifting from one to the other has been nothing if not educational. Today’s subject: the difference between Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, as best I can discern it.

The title above is a bit deceiving, because a Catholic priest can be referred to as a pastor, and some Protestant pastors—I’m thinking of the Episcopalians—are referred to as priests. And yes, I know we’re all supposed to be ministers and all that. But you get the drift—I’m talking about pastors as professionals from the near side of the Protestant Reformation and priests as professionals coming from the far side of it. So, after 40 years of observing the former—including 18 years in the home of one—and about 1.5 short years of watching the latter, here’s a list of differences and similarities.

1. Priests are men. Pastors are not necessarily men. (Don’t worry, it gets more interesting than this.)

2. Pastors can marry. Priests cannot marry, although some priests are married (but only if they were married clergy in the Anglican Communion and then converted). Indeed, many evangelical congregations don’t trust unmarried male ministers.  And Catholic congregations would, of course, require a good explanation for a married one.

3. Pastors may have biological children. So may priests. [Read more…]