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Fun with statistics

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 25, 2014

The Society of Jesus has released an internal census, showing that there were 12,298 Jesuit priests in the world last year, and 17,287 members of the Society as a whole. In 1975, those figures were 20,627 and 28,856, respectively. Under normal circumstances we’d call that a steep decline. Ask Jesuit superiors about the trend, however, and they’ll tell you that you’re focused on the wrong datum. The main point isn’t the quantity of men in the order, they say; it’s the quality.

It’s not easy to assign numbers to measure quality. But leave that issue aside for the moment. For what they’re worth, the hard numbers that are available tell a pretty clear story. Look at the far right-hand column on Table 3, which shows an unbroken streak of personnel losses, year after year, since 1975. Remember the old Soviet agricultural statistics, which reported 70 years of consecutive disappointing harvests—all due to bad weather, of course? There was no doubt among the commisars about the quality of collective farming.

Just by the way, a senior at Jesuit-run Boston College, has written in the campus newspaper, explaining how he was a Christian when he arrived at the school, but will be leaving as an atheist. “The Jesuits don’t teach students what to think,” he writes. “They teach them how to think.” He explains that his atheism “was developed in classes I was required to take based on Jesuit values and ideals.” I’m not sure why his column came to my mind just now; it probably has nothing to do with the decline in the number of Jesuits. A distraction, no doubt.

Meanwhile over on Religion Dispatches, Patricia Miller—who describes herself as “the editor of Conscience magazine, the leading journal of pro-choice Catholic thought—is defending the National Coalition of American Nuns, the organization of women religious defending legal abortion, against a charge made by Ann Carey in the National Catholic Register that NCAN is a paper organization. Here’s Miller’s evidence:

For the record, a 2009 NCAN sign-on letter in support of a priest who was threatened with excommunication for supporting women’s ordination received the signature of well over 100 well known women religious social justice leaders, including Gramick, and Sisters Donna Quinn, Joan Chittister, Mary Ann Cunningham, Maureen Fiedler, Ivone Gebara, and Theresa Kane.

So five years ago, NCAN managed to collect 100 signatures on a public statement. Does that make it a credible organization? It does, I suppose, if you assume that anyone with 100-odd sympathizers is a potent public voice. Miller, who seems to make that assumption, bridles at the notion that NCAN is a shill for the abortion lobby:

So Cardinal Timothy Dolan can go on “Meet the Press” and promote an anti-contraception agenda that’s out of line with the 99 percent of Catholic women who have used birth control and no one questions it, but a group of nuns representing mainstream Catholic thought on contraception are dupes of the reproductive rights lobby?

Did you notice the absurdity in that rhetorical question? No, I don’t mean the 99-percent figure. I’d like to see some proof of that statistic, but it’s not what jumped out at me. Notice Miller’s claim that when Cardinal Dolan opposes contraception, “no one questions it.” Later in her column she adds that “dissenting voices are hard to find.” Really? Would you have trouble leafing through the secular newspapers—or even the Catholic newspapers—and finding someone who dissents from the Church’s teaching contraception?

And which is it? Is dissent ubiquitous—that 99% figure again—or is it hard to find? Is NCAN a powerful voice for ordinary Catholic women, or a tiny marginalized group? I’m confused. Or possibly the confusion lies elsewhere.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Mar. 26, 2014 3:11 PM ET USA

    NCAN is very radical and it's not actually clear how many members it has or what portion of them are sisters (anyone can join). Its website hasn't been updated since 2009. An account of its founding and subsequent activities may be found in my biography of its current leader Sr Donna Quinn, which is a chapter from my book A Report on the Sinsinawa Dominicans Today http://www.fathermazzuchellisociety.org/circling-the-wagons-to-defend-the-abortion-nun/

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Mar. 26, 2014 6:49 AM ET USA

    All these people--hardly religious--demonstrate is anger. It's sad but we must continue to pray for our enemies, even when they are in the bosom of the Church.

  • Posted by: Defender - Mar. 25, 2014 7:42 PM ET USA

    The sooner the Jesuits Jesuit themselves out of existence the better. We can have honest to goodness (ah, that word) Catholic schools. We all know what Jesuits believe (it ain't always Catholicism) and teaching students how to think obviously didn't work out well either because they seem to miss a few steps along the way.

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