The Numbers Narrative

Rochester’s local media dissects Bishop Matano’s presser yesterday.

Are numbers important? There is hope that a new bishop will bring new energy and life to a diocese. Bishop Matano focused, it is observed, on settling sex abuse cases. Is that part of the reason why the bleeding has been a little more fluid east of Lake Champlain?

One significant difference is that the Rochester diocese has done better in terms of retaining Catholics in recent years. According to statistics from the Annuario Pontificio, the annual directory of the Holy See, 22.7 percent of residents in the 12-county Rochester diocese identified themselves as Catholic in 2011, only a shade below the 23 percent who did so in 2001. In the Diocese of Burlington, only 19 percent of diocesan residents identified themselves as Catholic in 2012, down from 24.6 percent in 2001.

Sobering news, perhaps, for the Cleansing Fire commentariat that got predictably distracted this morning to talk about me and to analyze why retired bishop Matthew Clark was disrespectful by fidgeting so much.

Jerome O’Neill, a Vermont lawyer who went to trial against the diocese a number of times:

(The Diocese of Burlington was) by far the most litigious diocese in the country.

“Unusually high,” is how the comment was given about the quantity of court action. Such things have a price to be paid: very bad publicity and a drumbeat of keeping bad news in the public eye.

What were those Vermont numbers again? 24.7% Catholic to 19% in a bit more than a decade? That’s a loss of more than 30,000 self-affirmed believers and more than 20%, accounting for Vermont’s population increase.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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7 Responses to The Numbers Narrative

  1. FrMichael says:

    We all know that the methods of Catholic population statistics vary widely from diocese to diocese. CARA did a report on that some time ago. More objective statistics are Mass attendance and sacraments. On that score, Rochester is as bad or worse than Vermont, and for a longer time.

    One example:

    http://cleansingfiredor.com/2010/09/more-statistics-on-mass-attendance/

    More thorough numbers:
    http://cleansingfiredor.com/2010/06/thirty-years-with-bishop-clark/

    I’m not defending Bishop Matano, a man whose name I have never heard of until yesterday, but in Catholic terms he’s coming into September 1945 Hiroshima.

  2. FrMichael says:

    Oh, I see via a later Cleansing Fire post that the Annuario Pontificio numbers aren’t ready for sociological prime time:

    http://cleansingfiredor.com/2012/07/fishy-data/

    I saw the same thing in my diocese: a change of bishops and vicars general and suddenly our Catholic population grew by many tens of thousands! Different people, different methodologies, and not a Ph.D. in Sociology to be found. Best to stick with countable data.

  3. Todd says:

    Mass attendance, right. Ushers counting people coming and going with clickers. Cleansing Fire can’t even count to six on some list they posted yesterday. They made point four twice. I think I’d go with people who can count, like parish secretaries who keep rolls on who’s registered and weigh that against US Census data.

    Rochester dodged the worst of what hit New England. I knew another priest in that diocese who, when he had acknowledged abuse, was shifted to the chancery. He wasn’t sent to pastor a parish undercover. He wasn’t on weekend release to hear confessions. When the Law mess broke in 2002, he was outed, and pink-slipped. And yes, probably in full paid retirement.

    I’d readily concede that Bishop Clark wasn’t an inspirational/evangelical leader in terms of putting butts in the pews. But he seemed to have a better moral compass than a lot of JP2 darlings.

    The bottom line is that by their own counting standards, Vermont has lost 20-plus percent of its Catholics since before the Charter, and Rochester maybe one. At least Bishop Matano knows what side the bread is buttered on. And I’d be among the first to give him a game chance in Rochester.

    Cleansing Fire noticed what side of his shirt the retired bishop was scratching. That just strikes me as darned creepy. Caveat emptor, for those of you in the spectating mode.

  4. FrMichael says:

    Parish registrations can be another voodoo art. I came to a parish once and discovered that what I was told was 1,800 families was in fact 800 once we audited the rolls. Also aware of the inherent inaccuracies of the head counts taken in October, but given that ushers are a fairly stable group, the same people making the same count using the same methodology at a given parish will give some useful data. It certainly lets us know that people self-report Mass attendance at numbers far greater than in reality.

    The best data are the baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and clergy numbers. Certainly in Rochester’s case, it looks like the Black Death has passed over that land.

    Once again, I’m not saying that the new bishop is the right man for the job: I don’t know him and your stats about Vermont aren’t encouraging at all.

    • Todd says:

      I think you’re missing the point. By Burlington’s own standards, they’ve declined by more than 20%. If Rochester is changing its counting methods to disguise a decline, that would be unethical. CCC 2478 would suggest you and others would need more ironclad proof before accusing their censustakers of such an act.

      It is possible to check the Kenedy directory and compare 2001 and 2012 sacramental numbers for Rochester. I’d say the burden of proof is on the Cleansing Fire people. It’s not like they don’t have more ammunition against Bishop Clark. I thought the scratching inside his shirt was particularly damning.

  5. As someone who has had a recent affiliation with Rochester, I wince at Fr. Michael’s comments. I would likely wince at them anyway, but this makes it all the more.

    Fr. Michael, I think I have discovered what I bothers me about many of your comments, especially these comments… Perhaps I have said this before, I don’t recall. You tend to make a sweeping distinction about a particular diocese, a tremendous generalization. What is that about? The Black Death? God have mercy on you. The arrogant tone of this kind of talk is at once disturbing and pitiful. All the more so due to your office.

    What a great disrespect you have paid the people of Rochester overall.

    And overall, is counting sacraments the chief way of determining the health of the Church? God have mercy if it is. And watching the rolls swell with thousands of new Catholics. Is this a contest or a race? Quantity or quality? About a crowd or about a transformation? If headcounts were the arbiter, poor Jesus would have been in loser land, wouldn’t he?

  6. FrMichael says:

    Todd and Fran:

    Counting sacraments is not the only way to assess the health of a diocese, but they are key indicators. The decline in these indicators over the Bishop Clark’s term is shocking, far worse than the 20% decline in Burlington, as bad as that is.

    I have said nothing about the Catholic people of Rochester. I actually give credit to those who have remained in the pews and parishes, worshipping God and serving their neighbors while all around them is the plainly-seen evidence of severe Catholic decline.

    Todd, I made no accusation about anybody fixing numbers. My point was that total Catholic population numbers are a nebulous figures, difficult for even trained sociologists to determine. Most Catholic clergy have no such education and yet are responsible for creating such numbers for the Annuario and the Kenedy Directory.

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