January 28 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Are Scots Catholics practising our Faith in numbers?

By Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office

Towards the end of last year in a letter to the SCO a reader commented that the annual parish census of Mass attendance was a problematic exercise likely to yield a less than accurate result.

It was also suggested that the figure often quoted by the media of 750,000 Catholics in Scotland was likewise inaccurate and the suggestion was made that more work needed to be done to improve these statistics.

I found myself nodding in agreement as I read the letter concerned, mainly because about a year earlier I had made a number of similar points to the Bishops’ Conference together with a suggestion that the Catholic Media Office launch a parish census project with the aim of gathering accurate figures for Mass attendance in Scotland. The Bishops agreed to the proposal and gave it their backing. No sooner had exploratory work begun on a suitable methodology when we learnt that the Pope was to visit us. Normal service had to be suspended as we rallied to prepare for what we now know was to be an inspiring day in the life of the Church in Scotland.


The need for accurate statistics however remains and through our census project, which we will undertake in 2011, we hope to be able to gather more accurate data on the life of the Church in Scotland. In two months time, on March 27, the National Scottish Census will take place—so this year is an appropriate one to launch our own census project.

For many years people have been confused by a wide range of published numbers which claim to show either the total number of Catholics in Scotland or the number who are practising. Commonly, the media use the figure of 750,000 as the number of Scottish Catholics, which represents 16 per cent of the population. This is taken directly from the 2001 Registrar General’s National Census where, for the first time, a question on religious identity was included. As with any large-scale exercise absolute accuracy is difficult, however there is no reason to suspect that the 2001 figure isn’t largely accurate, mainly because a number of subsequent opinion polls which have used statistically significant sample groups have, on the question of religious affiliation, been able to replicate the finding.

It is worth pointing out that the National Census is a Government activity where detailed questionnaires are delivered to each household, and are left to allow for completion and subsequently collected. Little effort is required on the part of the individual other than to read and then accurately fill in the form. The results so obtained should be substantially accurate and cross checking and tracking by enumerators is used to ensure that they are.

Mass attendance

The other number frequently used in the media, and one which the Media Office is often asked for, is the number of practising Catholics in Scotland, in other words our Mass attendance number.  This is a bit more difficult to answer accurately. The 2010 Catholic Directory lists Mass attendance on the first Sunday of November 2008 as 185,608. This at first sight appears to be a surprisingly exact number. In reality it is somewhat illusory. It is based on an aggregation of the returns from all the parishes in Scotland on Census Sunday. Unfortunately not every parish submits a return and the counting methods and accuracy of those that do differs widely. As a result of ‘rounding up,’ ‘rounding down’ and ‘guesstimating’ a number is calculated but it includes a significant margin of error.

With this in mind the Catholic Media Office suggested adopting a new approach to the way we calculate Mass attendance. It involves measuring a small but statistically accurate sample of parishes in more detail and more frequently than our current national annual count allows.

New approach

I believe a new approach could have many benefits not least in allowing us to know more accurately how many Catholics regularly practise their Faith. Ultimately it is this number, weekly attendance, which I believe will come to be more significant in our secularised society. The National Census can be accused of simply listing familial or habitual identification with a particular religion, while an attendance census is more compelling. It shows how many people are willing to act to uphold their faith, to put their ‘money where their mouth is’ and walk through the door of their church every Sunday rather than simply labelling themselves devotees of a creed they may have little or no contact with.

For such a counting system to work, however, co-operation and enthusiastic participation will be needed on the part of parishioners in the sample parishes. SCMO have been considering how best to select the 20 or so census parishes needed for the project and concluded that it would be best to appeal for volunteer parishes. Any parishioner willing to get involved should contact the Catholic Media Office as soon as possible. If you are willing to take an accurate ‘head count’ of Mass attendance in your parish a couple of times a year we’d be delighted to have your support. All results will be anonymised, aggregated and eventually extrapolated to calculate the final total, so it will not be possible to identify the ebb and flow of attendance in any single location. Care will be taken to maintain the confidentiality of all parish data, which will not be made available to any third party.

If you or someone you know would like to be involved in this exciting development please get in touch, the time and commitment required will be very small and your support will be greatly appreciated.

— Catholic Media Office: 0141 221 1168 or mail@scmo.org

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