Despite the bad publicity dogging the Catholic church internationally, Karl du Fresne reports that many NZ Catholics have a positive picture of their church in New Zealand (see Catholicism: Holy smoke, NZ Listener). His subtitle conveys the message – despite all the scandals and controversies, Catholicism is emerging as the country’s most popular denomination.
Du Fresne wrote:
“Statistics suggest their optimism may be justified. Although the number of New Zealanders declaring no religious belief is steadily increasing, making this one of the most secular countries in the world, the 2006 census showed the Catholic population had risen by 4.7% over the previous five years. In the same period, the number of Anglicans and Presbyterians sharply declined. If the trends have continued, the just-taken census should show Catholicism overtaking the Church of England as the denomination with the greatest number of followers in New Zealand.”
A friend queried the claim of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population. After all, weren’t recent census results showing a decline in numbers of religious people?
So – I had a look at the data for the 1996, 2001 and 2006 Censuses (No data available for the 2013 Census yet). Du Fresne’s figure of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population between 2001 and 2006 is correct – but easily misinterpreted. He is referring to absolute numbers, not the proportion or percentage of the total population, which also increased in that time – an important difference. Here are some figures and graphics to clarify the census results.
|Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist||1,584||11,016||13,836|
Clearly, as du Fresne said, Catholics have slightly increased in numbers while other major religions have declined. Possibly Catholics may overtake Anglicans in the 2013 census. But the 4.7% increase in absolute numbers can be misleading because the total population increased by 7.8% in that time.
Maybe, from the perspective of the specific religion, the increase or decline in absolute numbers is important. However, the “no religion” and smaller religions have performed better on this criteria than Catholics. In the table below I have ranked some of the religions in order for that criteria – the increase from 2001 – 2006 expressed as a percentage of the 2001 figure.
|%age increase 2001-2006|
|Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist||13836||25.6|
|Presbyterian, Congregational and Reformed||400839||-7.0|
Finally, many people would interpret (incorrectly) du Fresne’s 4.7% as the increase in percentage of Catholics as a proportion of the total population. The table below shows the data for that calculation – in this case the proportion of Catholics changed from 13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006 – a decline of 0.4%.
|% in 2006||Change from 2001|
|Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist||0.3||0.0|
Du Fresne speculated on the figures for Catholics in NZ:
“That increase is thought to be partly related to the increasing number of Asian Catholic immigrants, which in turn reflects the growth of Catholicism in the Third World. Four out of every 10 New Zealand Catholics under 25 are Asian, Maori or Pasifika. That gives hope to Catholics who are otherwise dismayed at the secularisation of society and the decline in attendance at mass. Most of the older Catholics contacted by the Listener said their children and other family members had drifted away from the Church.”
- Yes, Catholics in New Zealand increased in absolute numbers between 2001 and 2006 (by 4.7% from 485637 in 2001 to 508437 in 2006) but slower than the rate of growth of the total population. Consequently their proportion in the total population declined by 0.4% (from 13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006).
- Yes, their relatively slow decline (0.4%) contrasts with the much more rapid decline of the other major Christian denominations (1.9% for Anglicans and 1.6% for Presbyterians).
- Some smaller Christian denominations and other religions like Hindu, Buddhist and Islam increase dramatically in numbers, but because of their small size did not really figure as changes in the proportion of the total population.
- The stand out group is the “no religion” one which increased as proportion of the total population by 4.7% (from 27.5% in 2001 to 32.2% in 2006) [Or by 26.2% (from 1,028,049 in 2001 to 1,297,104 in 2006) in terms of absolute numbers].