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.