PAUL COLLINS. 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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8 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. The Real Crisis of Australian Catholicism.

  1. Bill Burke says:

    Paul, your article touches on several crisis points confronting Catholics who have a continuing interest in the state of the Church and prompts these comments.
    1. The crisis of Collapse. You note the recent census statistics and mass attendance data. The gap between nominal membership and weekly involvement has become a feature of recent decades. Far more dramatic are a series of plummeting figures which are never highlighted for public analysis and reaction. I speak of the number of baptisms, marriages and funerals that are Not happening in Catholic Churches each year.
    The reality is stark. Not only are the majority of Catholics opting for secular marriage services, they are also forgetting to baptise their children And, their parents and grandparents, in increasing numbers, are leaving this life without any request for the last rites – rather, they hand over their funeral farewell to a secular celebrant or trusted relative.
    Applying a little Rahner to this phenomenon – it could be said that most Catholics are content to be anonymous Catholics in the every day and peak moments of their lives. That this is so challenges a vital dimension of church life – its capacity to evangelise.
    2. The crisis of Compromise. You note the Church’s profile as an employer in the education, health, aged care and social service sectors. Further, you note the high dependence on Government funding. What is yet to be noted and awaits close analysis and evaluation is the cost to the Church in becoming so dependent on Government finances.
    One small clue suggests the result will be glum: You need to go back several decades to find the last time the Australian Episcopal Conference, through one of its number, recorded a substantive criticism of a Government policy. Yet, in that intervening period, we have participated in wars where Just Cause was questioned, we have inaugurated policies concerning refugees which have been challenged by the UNO and we have allowed wages to slide under levels recommended by the Reserve Bank – yet not even a whimper from the Church leadership.
    3. The crisis of Compartmentalised Membership. Progressive Catholics and Conservative Catholics are equally adroit in apportioning blame to the other when lamenting the current state of the Church. And, both reveal a proclivity for sliding into heretical hazards when opining on their superiority and the other’s defects.
    I well recall a gathering of religious priests in 1972 that had fractured into conservative and progressive factions. From the floor came a quaint solution. “Fr Provincial, the answer is simple, we can divide the Province into two groups: the upper strict and the lower relaxed and you can be Provincial of both groups.” Sadly that is what actually happened – the two groups drifted into minimal contact, communities were formed with like minded members and division became a remorseless tale of diminution.
    It may be uncomfortable, it is definitely inconvenient at times, but since the Council of Jerusalem the preferred Church model has been clear. The genius of difference, working together, deliberating together and celebrating the presence of God together has given birth to a church enlivened, emboldened and enthused in speaking its message in the market place.

  2. Trish Martin says:

    Paul you say you are not an academic but your writing is thorough and true to the topic, and unfortunately I could not open your 8000 word article.
    Like you I am appalled by the state of the Catholic Church hierarchy who live and work as though they uphold a tradition that represents the Roman Empire (it has been suggested that Constantine sparked this attitude). Gospel values regarding the status of women and children have been ignored, and our bishops and cardinals enjoy privileges that Jesus critically shunned in Scripture when he addressed the Pharisees on their inordinate status in religious society. I am a passionate supporter of Mass and the Catholic ethos to make disciples of all Christians, but I don’t see the behavior of bishops as being true to discipleship of Jesus. They have shown no concern for God’s children who are held up by Christ as the icon and means for finding heavenly values.

  3. Paul Collins Paul Collins says:

    Just four comments on J. Knight’s contribution. (1) I am not an academic and I never have been. So there’s the academic salary gone. (2) I do not receive a brass razoo from either the ABC or any commercial media for any appearances; all my work in media since 1996 when I left the ABC is pro bono. The only exception was the coverage of the 2013 papal election where I paid all my own expenses. (3) “God and Caesar in Australia” is not a book; it is an 8000 word article commissioned by The Australian Book Review through a RAFT Fellowship. (4) I am still a practicing Catholic who attempts to live the gospel values. Catholicism is my home; that is why I feel free to offer some criticisms of the family. Thank you

  4. John Giacon says:

    Hello Paul, and thanks.
    I could not get the link to the article to work. Is there a problem with the link?

  5. J Knight says:

    Dear Paul, thanks for the advertorial.

    Sadly, you are correct to point out the damaging effects of state aid and its parallels to ‘taking the soup’ and how ineffectual the Church’s own canon law is applied to maintain its own legal and administrative identity.

    The Church today is a basket case of managerialism – most of it very ordinary – hiding the real mission of the Church.

    Those ‘good’ people who couldn’t cope and fled the structures, rather than staying within and perfecting them, reflect what your book should have been called “Too Many Personal Agendas!”

    Anyway, its great you can make a living from academia and media (is there a difference anymore?) and perhaps those of us left in the Church can keep faithful to the Gospel.

  6. trevor kennedy says:

    Very perceptive piece. The failure of the church to address real issues–married priests–for example and the complete lack of any fighting spirit from senior clergy who think parading around in fancy dress gives them authority

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