PAUL COLLINS. The Best of 2018: The Real Crisis of Australian Catholicism.

It is patently obvious that Australian Catholicism is in crisis. The usual analysis is that this has been caused by the appalling mishandling and cover-up of child sexual abuse and the subsequent investigations of the Royal Commission. However, this is only a partial explanation. Catholicism’s problems have a much longer history and go much deeper. They won’t be solved merely by the application of the recommendations of the Commission. A much more radical root and branch reform is needed. 

Yet, despite the abuse crisis, Catholicism is still enormously influential in Australia. In the 2016 census 22.6% of the population (totalling 5,291,834 people) self-reported as Catholic. The church employs more than 230,000 people, making it the biggest private employer in the country, bigger than Wesfarmers and bigger than all the banks put together.

It is a major player in the educational, health, aged care and social service sectors. Since the 1830s and for much of our history, it was Catholicism and the other churches that provided the lion’s share of all these services Government aid and participation was virtually non-existent.

Nowadays the Catholic Church maintains some fifty-two welfare organizations across a range of service provisions: homelessness, refugees, drug, alcohol, gambling, family violence, foster care, disability, counselling, overseas aid and employment. In 2016 the Saint Vincent de Paul Society had 20,736 members and 41,152 volunteers, making it the largest charity in the country providing an enormous range of services. Catholic schools educate some 765,000 students in 1731 primary and secondary schools, or 20.2% of all enrolments. It provides almost a quarter of health and aged care.

The striking thing about all this is that church and state work closely together in the provision of services across all these sectors, with the government providing about seventy percent of funding for all the church’s ministries, except parishes and dioceses. This relationship is unique, with no real parallel anywhere in the world.

But—and this introduces us to the heart of the Catholic crisis—this vast ministerial superstructure is based on increasingly weak ecclesial foundations. The simple fact is that the number of committed Catholics who do the bulk of the church’s work is contracting at an increasing rate. You see this in terms of affiliation with the church. Conscious affiliation, as reflected in the number of self-identifying Catholics in the census, is falling. From a high in 1996 when Catholics made up 27% of the population, in 2011 this had dropped to 25.3% and in 2016 to 22.6%, a drop of 4.4% in twenty years.

You can dig a little deeper and take Mass attendance as a sign of more than nominal commitment. From the 1850s to the 1940s regular Mass attendance sat somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of all Catholics. Except for the immediate post Second World War period, when an extraordinary 75% of Catholics attended Mass on a weekly basis, affiliation has been steadily decreasing since the late-1960s, so that the 2016 figures show only about nine to ten percent of Catholics attend Mass regularly. Of these, 43% were born overseas and these new arrivals have saved Mass attendance figures from catastrophic decline. Even more worrying is the loss of young people: only 9% of fifteen to twenty-nine-year-olds are regular attendees.

Conservative Catholics usually blame this on the renewal promoted by Vatican Council II (1962-65) and its aftermath. This is a mistaken interpretation; in fact, the opposite is true. The world changed in the 1960s with a tectonic shift occurring that involved a radical change in the role and status of women and the advent of feminism, the ascendancy of science and technology, a new understanding of sexuality and of gender diversity and fluidity. Vatican II, particularly in the document on The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) opened-up Catholicism to these emerging realities and laid the foundation for a creative and critical interaction with them.

But then there was a catastrophic failure in leadership. Pope Paul VI really only half-heartedly introduced the Vatican II reforms. The failure was intensified by John Paul II, who introduced an agenda that reflected his own subjective and idiosyncratic vision of Catholicism. His twenty-seven-year-long papacy, followed by that of Benedict XVI, alienated many Catholics.

The bishops appointed by these popes reflected papal agendas and local Catholics increasingly felt, as I argued in my 1991 book No Set Agenda, ‘leaderless and bereft’ as the church lost many of its ‘lay and priestly leadership cadre, the people who … [were] essential for it to move into the future’. Many pastoral priests left the ministry, while frustrated lay leaders severed affiliation or drifted away.

Massive failures in leadership are at the heart of Catholicism’s crisis. Pope Francis has lessened Rome’s centralized, smothering grip on the local churches and encouraged local initiative. He has asked the bishops to get beyond their inertia, but they are still claiming that even minor decisions are “beyond their competence” or “inappropriate at this time”. An example is that two and a half months after the Royal Commission handed down its report and recommendations, the bishops still can’t agree on a response to the most damning report ever put together on Australian Catholicism.

Some bishops keep pointing to the 2020 Plenary Council of the Australian Church as the panacea for all Catholicism’s ills. But that is still two-and-a-half years away, and there are already serious divisions among the bishops about the Council and its deliberations. The irresponsibility of the bishops in all this is breath-taking.

Recently the Australian Book Review granted me a RAFT Fellowship (Religious Advancement Foundation Trust) to undertake a comprehensive survey of the church’s ministry and its relationship with government funding. It is entitled God and Caesar in Australia and it expands on many of the issues mentioned here.

You can read the 8000-word article at www.australianbookreview/subscribe/purchase-magazines

Historian and broadcaster, Paul Collins, has been working for the renewal of the church for forty years.


Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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3 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. The Best of 2018: The Real Crisis of Australian Catholicism.

  1. Avatar John Michael O'brien says:

    Given the figures on church attendance of the young one wonders the purpose of a separate Catholic school system. We hear a lot about a distinctive ‘ethos’ in Catholic schools. It seems the influence of this ethos on young Catholics is minimal.

  2. Avatar Bruce Waddell says:

    Excellent article Paul especially the references to Vatican 11 and the failure of leadership. The Church has failed. When the voter grasps how much it props up its work its influence will diminish faster than a birthday balloon. As the abandonment gains speed and the social work I’d does diminishes the country will be poorer. The schools of philosophy must start gearing up to fill the vacant spaces to save moral decline. Kids deserve foundation learning but the Church no longer deserves the nation’s support. This is a must read.

  3. Avatar Peter Woodruff says:

    PETER WOODRUFF: What Matters at the Show and in the Church
    Peter Woodruff worked as a missionary priest in Lima, Peru from 1968 to 2008. He retired to Australia ten years ago, since when he has turned his hand to writing and editing. He presently edits The Australian Journal of Mission Studies, an ecumenical journal.
    I spent my childhood and youth in Tasmanian towns, never had any desire to live on a farm but always enjoyed going to what I knew as ‘the show’, which was in fact an agricultural show.
    The show offered two kinds of spectacles: what went on in the side-shows and what happened in the main arena.
    The side-shows drew the crowds and were quite noisy as if to assure patrons that something was happening. I used to check them out but soon became bored. On the other hand, I don’t remember the main arena being noisy or busy; it seemed to be the place where one had to wait for something to happen. I presume there was a program of events. I enjoyed watching the animals parade around the arena, the sheep-dogs work the sheep and the horses jump barriers. I would also spend time visiting the stalls where the prize cattle, pigs, sheep and dogs were kept.
    I don’t know why these images came to me as I pondered the future of the Catholic Church in Australia. But, there does seem to be a similarity between the present goings on in the Catholic Church and what I used to see at Tasmanian agricultural shows over 60 years ago.
    Among the efforts to promote church renewal, there are side-shows and there is the program in the main arena.
    In the Catholic Church, there was a day when the bishops seemed to occupy the main arena. During those years of the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) and its immediate aftermath the bishops seemed to be front and centre and the following paragraph at the beginning of the final major statement by that council sums up their key agenda:
    The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men and women. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man and woman. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds. (The Church in the Modern World, No 1)
    Whatever else may have been happening was, we thought, a side-show. It was the bishop of Rome, Pope John XXIII, who got that ball rolling. The two popes who came into the job after Vatican II blocked it. Francis, our present pope, is doing his best to update and put new life into what had been wound down.
    Pope Francis did not have to begin from zero as the church in many parts of the world has had the good fortune to have been led by bishops in collaboration with others sharing a pastoral focus on fostering life, especially where it is being denied, namely among the poor and marginalised and frequently in the context of irresponsible lack of care for the earth, our common home. Many may see the poor and marginalised as the periphery of society. However, from God’s perspective, the so-called periphery is the main arena.
    St Francis of Assisi chose to be marginal and is today a symbol of medieval church renewal. Archbishop Oscar Romero chose to stand with the poor and oppressed of El Salvador. For that, he was assassinated and, more recently, proclaimed a saint, much to the joy of Christians around the world striving to live in solidarity with the poor. In recent years, in many parts of the world, lay women and men, nuns, priests and bishops have been killed because of their solidarity with the poor and oppressed in their struggle for justice and a fair go.
    In so far as and our local church finds ways to prioritise the well-being and dignity of the poor and marginalised of our society it will avoid the side-show syndrome and occupy the main arena. However, we do risk contenting ourselves with welfare, which, though necessary, is basically a side-show. To truly occupy the main arena, we must challenge and commit to changing society, locally and globally, in ways that are life giving for all, especially those currently being denied opportunities to live life to the full.
    I believe that many Australian Christians (from a variety of stables) find their way with and to God in solidarity with the peripheries of our society. Such men and women, the Mary McKillops and many more, should be our signs of hope and guides. If we were to focus on identifying and heeding such ‘living saints’ we might once again be a church of hope and joy – occupying the main arena.

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