Think beyond the parish

Jayeel Cornelio

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

The statistical data are clear: At a national scale, the pews of the Catholic Church are emptying

Although it asked only 4 questions concerning religiosity, a recent national survey conducted by SWS has stirred enough controversy to receive the attention and ire of some leaders of the Catholic Church.

The irony, however, is that it was in fact another prominent priest, Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ, who encouraged Mahar Mangahas of SWS to “take out his social survey tools to help us understand what is happening” to Filipino Catholics today.

The tools have been taken out and the results are now in. Across the 4 indicators of self-assessed religiosity, church attendance, self-comparison of church attendance today with attendance 5 years ago, and thinking about leaving the Church, a decline of overall religiosity seems to be taking place within the Catholic Church in the Philippines.

What is fascinating though, as always, is how some Church leaders have reacted to the survey results in ways that would not pass muster even in an undergraduate research methods class.

The survey’s representativeness, for example, has been questioned without even taking seriously the sampling design and strategy adopted by SWS. Or that immediately, the survey’s credibility was questioned for serving the interests of the current administration, which is allegedly aimed at undermining the “Catholic vote” in the upcoming elections.

Apart from the claims of influential religious leaders, the existence of the “Catholic vote” in the Philippines is yet to manifest.

But perhaps what strikes me most among all the institutional responses thus far is parochialism. Some priests have asserted that they have never observed any decline in their parish attendance, based on visual observations of participation during recent Holy Week events, for example.

Some have also pointed to the attendance at Masses held in malls around Metro Manila to disprove the results of the survey. Other church leaders have even bragged about the growing number of parishes within their diocese.

I will grant for the sake of argument that these parishes and dioceses are vibrant and growing. Be that as it may, this parochial reasoning misses the very point of national surveys that reveal trends concerning shifting religiosities within the Catholic Church in the Philippines today.

The statistical fact is that on a national scale, religious affiliation to the Catholic Church has gone down from 85% in 1991 to 81% in 2013 and church attendance among Catholics has dramatically declined from 64% to 37% in the same time period.

In layman’s terms, your local parish might look filled to the brim but the pews of the national Catholic Church are emptying.

Comparative religiosities

It has been suggested that Catholics are flocking to other religions including Evangelical churches, Iglesia ni Cristo, and other Christian denominations. There are anecdotal data to demonstrate this in terms of the emergence of new denominations and independent churches in the provinces, for example.

To my mind, the statistical data are still sketchy and need more research. The 2013 data on religious affiliation mirror more or less, for example, the data we have from the 2007 Census: 81% profess to be Catholic, 9% Protestant and other Christian denominations, 3% Iglesia ni Cristo, and 6% Muslim.

But the statistical growth of these other religions is not what is inherently interesting. The comparative aspect between Catholics and adherents of other religions is revealing relatively weaker modes of religiosity among the former.

The same SWS survey shows that in terms of self-assessed religiosity, only 29% of Catholics consider themselves “very religious” in contrast to 50% among Protestants and 43% among the members of Iglesia ni Cristo.

In terms of church attendance, Catholics wane at 37% compared to the Protestants at 64% and the members of Iglesia ni Cristo at 70%. The religious leaders of these two latter groups must be very pleased to see these impressive indicators.

To me, these indicators are more compelling and disquieting than the SWS finding that “9% of Catholics sometimes think of leaving the Church”.

In a way this statement is sensationalist if only because those who think it are more common among the already nominally active Catholics.

This possibly means, too, that the majority of Catholics do not think about leaving the Church.

Interpreting statistics

The statistical data are clear: At a national scale, the pews of the Catholic Church are emptying. Comparatively, Catholic fervor is waning.

Indeed, we need to be thankful that there are efforts like these surveys that map out the trend for the public. This allows us, as the anthropologist Michael Tan puts it to heed “the biblical injunction to read the signs of the times.”

If our local Church leaders simply take the effort to look to some of their counterparts in Europe, they will realize that some of them are in fact sympathetic to the social sciences for offering them means to locate and understand contemporary religiosity or spirituality. Whether these findings eventually affect the behavior of religious leaders is another matter altogether.

Some people may interpret these statistical data to mean secularization or the overall decline of faith among Filipinos. Others have also suggested that these trends are foreshadowing the rise of “cultural Catholicism” or the idea that “Catholic” will simply be a category for individuals devoid of any religious belief or practice.

But that may not necessarily be the case. My view, as I have argued elsewhere, is that what might be taking place is a shift in what it means to be Catholic in Philippine society today.


What is the proper response? The parochial character of the reaction of some church leaders is missing the religious decline that is taking shape within the Catholic Church. It does not help that the supposed vibrancy of their local parishes keeps them oblivious to the state of the national Catholic Church.

My humble suggestion is this: It is time to think beyond your parish (or mall Masses, for that matter).

In thinking beyond the parish, one needs to ask first and foremost whether the decline in these religious indicators is worth reflecting on. It appears that many religious leaders are either turning a blind eye or simply more concerned about playing politics with the administration.

The buck concerning matters of the soul has to stop somewhere. And I do not expect it to be with the President of the Republic.

Secondly, if the decline of religiosity is worth pondering, what exactly has led to it all these years? Concerned priests, religious leaders, and commentators have brought up a range of reasons from the mundane such as boring sermons to the controversial such as the indefatigable fight over the Reproductive Health Law. These are, of course, anecdotal.

What is clear to me is that the decline in Catholic religiosity in the Philippines did not – and does not – happen overnight. Religious change is typically gradual and therefore takes place under our noses.

To keep denying that religious change is taking place will one day leave us staggered. But by then we cannot appeal, like the five foolish virgins, to “give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” –

Jayeel Serrano Cornelio is postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany, and an Assistant Professor in the Development Studies Program and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University. He has a forthcoming article on religious freedom in the Philippines (Review of Faith and International Affairs) and a book chapter on Golden Rule Catholicism and the Filipino youth (Ashgate). His current project deals with Christianity, young adulthood, and aspirations in Singapore.


Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!