Statistics

I love statistics. Like work, I can sit and look at them for hours. I am not clever enough to know how some are calculated, but I do tend to challenge a few (usually the financial ones) and, even more, the conclusions drawn from them. This morning, for example, I was thrilled to read that the number of murders, manslaughters and cases of infanticide in the U.K. fell in 2019 to 650, the lowest level for five years. For a population assessed to be 66.87 million, that may look impressive. But part of me wants to say, add in the number of abortions or people taking their own lives, and the figure rockets up; drill into the number of deaths by sex and age and the terrible toll wreaked on young men in particular becomes clear. There is still a lot of explaining to do before the statistics become helpful in terms of planning or working out how to reduce the number of deaths. It is so easy to forget that behind every statistic is a human face, a suffering face, and just look at the numbers.

Another statistic that took my eye this morning relates to the measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo: 310,000 are apparently infected, and 6,000 are said to have died already. Given the difficulty of obtaining accurate figures from the Congo, one wonders whether the actual number of people involved is much higher. The solutions being proposed look inadequate and probably are inadequate, but only when the numbers reach a certain level will there be pressure to act — or so it seems.

What started me on this trail of thought was re-reading a comment I had made nearly seven years ago on an article written by a priest in a well-regarded Catholic journal (I was renewing my credentials with a commenting platform and my comment popped up before me). The article had contained unflattering observations on ‘the traditional orders’ and proposed some radical solutions based almost entirely on numbers. I had taken issue with this, little realising that some of the observations I was making in jest would reappear in Cor Orans as completely serious. Looking back, one of the things I noticed was that no-one appeared to have engaged with what I myself had written about the future of monastic life for women. Instead, many had used the opportunity to say what they thought about the habit, the liturgy and so on. There was no reason anyone should engage with me, of course, but in nearly two hundred comments, I had hoped someone other than myself might have been interested in the future of monastic life for women. Apparently not. The argument went down a different line from the one I had expected and ended up in a morass of contradictory figures and opinions, plus some fascinating insights into what really interests some American Catholics.

One should not conclude too much from that, but it illustrates a problem many of us have with statistics. First, we tend to believe them, if they fit our narrative. Second, we then use them rather crudely, citing them as ‘scientific proof’ of whatever it is we want to argue. (I am not referring to professional statisticians, who will be horrified by the suggestion that they could ever misuse their skill in such a way. I am referring to us amateurs.) Recently, I smiled over a friend’s evident sense of grievance at the amount of money the UK had contributed to the EU budget over the years of our membership. He correctly gave the figure in terms of umpteen millions. Re-worked as a contribution per capita per annum, it came to a pitifully small sum. Both figures were correct, but could be used in different ways to argue a case according to the individual’s preference.

Is there such a thing as a Christian approach to statistics? I don’t think so. But there is a Christian approach to truthfulness and fairness. A frequent theme in the Rule of St Benedict is his concern for fairness. From everyone being treated compassionately, according to need rather than status, to the constant exhortation to avoid favouritism in the monastery, Benedict wants everyone to know that there are no second-rank individuals in community. Nothing will be used to ‘do them down’. I wonder if there is something there for us all to ponder about the assumptions we make and the way in which we try to justify them, using, of course, irreproachably objective things like statistics.

Over to you.

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A Gap in the Market for Meaning: Vocations Sunday 2015

In previous years I’ve written what I hope were thoughtful pieces on the nature of vocation and the role of family, friends and religious communities in helping those trying to make sense of a call from God. This morning I’d like to address something different. The arresting phrase forming the title of this post, uttered recently by the Director of the National Office for Vocation (NOV) in response to an increase in the number of entrants to religious communities for women (see report here), strikes me as symptomatic of the way in which the Church all too often approaches the subject of vocation. We play the numbers game, talking up increases and minimizing decreases, speaking our own special gobbledegook incomprehensible to outsiders (sometimes even to insiders) and criticizing or ostracizing anyone who dares to question what is going on. In short, we take a very secular attitude towards something that is, by definition, the reverse of secular.

I am an optimistic person, but I can’t help thinking the reported increase in the numbers of women joining Religious Orders in England and Wales may prove to be more Arab Spring than Second Spring. Even if all stay, and the report indicates we are talking about entrants to religious life, not those who have made profession (i.e. committed themselves by vow after several years’ membership of a religious  institute), many Orders and Congregations are going to shrink beyond recognition. The impact on the Church, already considerable, will be profound. We have had decades of down-sizing, abandonment of traditional works and undertakings, and withdrawal from the public sphere. Many people have never met a nun or sister. Even those who regard themselves as active Catholics are sometimes very vague about religious life. It is beyond their ken.

At the same time, the Church herself seems to have lost confidence in religious themselves. I am not thinking so much of high-profile events like the investigation into the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious as the more mundane neglect of nuns and sisters who are, to all intents and purposes, the invisible Church except when statistics are collated or bland statements about the importance of prayer and witness are made. Some dioceses give the impression that fostering consecrated life is a low priority. A dutiful Day for Religious, with Mass said by the bishop, is about the limit of engagement. The sisters have their uses, perhaps, but nuns are a waste of space (for the difference between nuns and sisters, see here). I exaggerate, of course, but not as much as you might think.

In fairness to the NOV, a great deal has been done in recent years to try to raise the profile of consecrated life at a supra-diocesan level and we should applaud its efforts. One unintended consequence, however, has been that smaller, poorer, possibly older, communities have effectively been excluded from participation in some of its initiatives. My own particular bugbear is the various forms of Vocation Awareness Days at which only nuns and sisters under 35 are welcome. Youth attracts youth, we are told, and of course that’s true, but are some secular ageist assumptions also at work? Let’s not forget how inspiring older religious can be and how much sympathy they can have with the young and not-so-young. I know my own vocation was greatly influenced by the older people I met at Stanbrook. They proved monastic life was worth pursuing, and I am eternally in their debt. Apart from anything else, they knew what they were talking about. Having lived monastic life for forty, fifty or sixty years, they were transformed by it. To use a popular phrase, they were authentic — and it showed.

The way in which the British media responded to the statistics released by the NOV also has a bearing on how we interpret them. Many treated the whole thing as a good story, a bit of a joke really, with predictable puns and an irritating display of religious illiteracy (the BBC World Service drove me demented with its references to women taking Holy Orders). There was a sudden flurry of activity as reporters and editors scampered through the ether looking for young nuns to ‘tell their story,’ the less expected the better, or re-ran old stories on people like us, who are using contemporary technology in different ways. Some, mainly the religious press, trumpeted the figures with an air of triumph as though they ushered in an era of religious plenty. It would be churlish not to rejoice that the people the statistics represent have found their way, but I suspect ‘the gap in the market for meaning’ they are alleged to have bridged is as wide as ever.

Unless there is a massive increase in numbers, we face a future in which both active and contemplative religious will be far fewer. The vocation in which I have been privileged to share will become less and less intelligible. I don’t think that’s a problem in itself, indeed I have a hunch that the religious communities of the future will be smaller, closer in spirit to the Desert ideal from which they originally sprang, but it does invite urgent examination of some of the strengths and weaknesses of religious life today, especially insofar as they concern women. We cannot and should not expect those entering our communities to be anything other than people of their time. If the Church accords religious women less respect than secular society accords women in general, we have gone very wrong (for some of my own reflections on this topic, see here).

People are drawn to religious life for all kinds of reasons, but the reasons they stay are usually the same — they have, however imperfectly or provisionally, found traces of God and been utterly captivated by him. That is what we need to convey, as a Church, as Orders/Congregations and as individuals: the supreme value of seeking God through a life of prayer and service lived under vows in community, the joy and beauty of it. That is what we need to celebrate, rather than numbers which can prove misleading.* That is also, crucially, what we need to make it easier for people to discover.

We often receive vocation enquiries via our web site and I have been shocked by what some of the enquirers tell me has been their experience of other houses or Congregations. They have been told they must write a letter rather than email in the first instance; must visit before they can have their questions answered; must do this, that or the other before the process of discernment can even begin. True, some of the questions we are asked make me suspect a wind-up at times, but we are aware that travel is costly and finding out about religious life isn’t always easy. People come before systems. Our job, surely, is to try to help people see beyond the externals to the core of our life, to enable them to answer God’s call freely, maturely, joyfully.  Above all, we need to give encouragement.

How what I say above fits in with the ‘culture of vocation’ to which the NOV report refers, I’ve no idea. I can only speak of what I know. I believe God still calls people to various forms of religious life and we must all make a response of some kind, whatever our role in the Church. A lack of conviction, a desire that vocation should concern some other person, some other family, is not just a form of half-heartedness, it is a fundamental lack of willingness to let God be God in our lives — and that letting God be God is at the heart of every vocation, whether it be to marriage or singleness, priesthood or consecrated life. This Sunday we shall be on our knees asking that His will, not ours, be done, ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, that God may be glorified in all things — even that strange marketplace for meaning with its even stranger gaps.

*If you look at the  latest Annuarium Statisticum, you will see that between 2005 and 2013, the number of female religious in Europe declined by 18.3%. The increase in vocations noted in the developing world was cited by some as evidence of vitality. I am slightly sceptical because my limited experience of communities in Africa and South America suggests a much more complex picture. Where joining a religious community represents a step up, both socially and economically, other factors may be at work; and historically, newer converts tend to join religious communities in disproportionately higher numbers.

Note: I have written about ‘religious life’ because that expression comes more easily to my pen. The officially preferred phrase is ‘consecrated life’.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Banana Index

Yesterday Michael Blastland published an article on how we view statistics, using bananas as an indication of radiation hazard (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15288975). His point was serious but engagingly made, especially as it followed so closely on the ‘Blackberry crumble’ which gave rise to some excellent quips. Autumn is the season of ‘mellow fruitfulness’ so I wonder what other fruits we could use to measure other hazards. Any ideas? And please, of your charity, don’t rate the G20 meeting in banana skins. That one’s been done already.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail