I grew up in a Catholic household, went to a Catholic school, and recent Census data has me down as Catholic. Despite such, I’m not actually a practising Catholic. I don’t attend church services, nor do I engage with a faith community on any level.
A few facts about Australia: In 2011, 61 per cent of Australians identified themselves as Christians, yet only eight per cent of the population actively practises their religion. We may have over five million Catholics, but only 13.8 per cent visit their church.
From these stats, it sounds like I, along with the majority of Australian Catholics, might as well join the quarter of the population already identifying as non-religious.
The simple truth for Catholicism in Australia is that it’s being pushed to the fringe. The nation’s relative economic prosperity and the general dogmatism of religious institutions have driven disengagement, which is undoubtedly troubling Catholic bodies and poses for them a weighty question: Should religion adapt its values to meet the changing needs of Australians?
As a once devout, now-disenchanted Catholic, trust me: the answer is ‘yes.’
The common defence for preserving Catholicism in its current form is rooted in the personal and subjective nature of religion. Though religious bodies love to offer their two cents’ worth on social matters, religious values differ from political and consumerist values as they are determined by doctrine, not trends. As such, one could argue that Catholic values shouldn’t be questioned by fleeting followers, just respected. However, this notion is flawed as it ignores the role played by the people – specifically, without its constituents, there is no Catholic Church. The construction of the Church exists purely for and because of its people, and there’s every reason they should be more heavily consulted in decision-making.
Unfortunately, this reasoning seems to fall upon deaf ears further up the hierarchy of Catholicism.
This very hierarchy is the centre of the problem. The institution’s head, Rome’s Vatican Council, has clashed with Australian Catholics since the late 1960s, starting with opposing views on contraception but spreading to a raft of social issues. The interminable conflict is proof of a progressive mindset among many Australian Catholics and their desire to re-evaluate the Church’s stance on social matters. Whether the Vatican is too detached to recognise this fact, or simply doesn’t want to, the result is a community so far removed from the Church’s leadership that the values pronounced from ‘on high’ don’t reflect those of the people.
Australia is home to a Catholic Left, such as the Liberal Catholic Church, and these groups are open to entering dialogue on modern social issues, preferring to focus on more pressing social justice concerns than the usual ‘sanctity of marriage’ debate. Discourse would be healthy for the wider Church’s advancement, but even the past five years have seen these voices marginalised and denounced by orthodox Catholics. The discouragement of discourse was painfully evident in March’s Papal election. As the leading Catholic figure, the Pope is significant to the life of every follower, yet little-to-no effort was made to educate the community on what each candidate stood for, ostensibly because they have no actual say in who takes the top job.
Catholic bodies would be wise to foster a space where followers can play a larger role within the Church, the benefits of which have been proven by the line of Australian Pentecostal Churches – Hillsong being one of the most well known. Unlike the mainstream Christian variants of Catholicism and Anglicanism, Pentecostal Churches have recorded small but sustained growth in the past 10 years.
Puzzlingly, the Vatican’s recent attempts to boost interest, especially in Australia, have involved pushing the fundamentals of Catholicism through what it calls ‘New Evangelisation.’ The logic is beyond baffling – if Catholic values are failing to resonate with fleeting and non-followers, why emphasise them further?
To the Church’s credit, New Evangelical activities, such as World Youth Day (held in Sydney in 2008 and in Rio in 2013) signify a willingness to take steps to reinvigorate the flock. The problem is these steps are decidedly conservative.
While I’m in support of a radical evaluation of Church’s values and practices, it’s understandable that the efforts to refresh Catholicism have been steeply inclined towards orthodoxy. After all, any change risks alienating loyal and conservative Australian Catholics, and religious values aren’t determined by popularity. But if the number of practising Catholics continues to decline, as has been the case for decades, the Church could very well create for itself a dire future where its presence is too small to actually deliver a message to wider Australia.
For too long, the Catholic Church has maintained a stance summarised by The Australian’s Greg Sheridan: “If people believe that the Church has been wrong about these issues…there’s a very simple solution, go somewhere else.”
Holding this attitude will only see the number of committed Australian Catholics dwindle further.
First published on The Big Smoke. Illustration by Eveline Pezzini.