Well over 500 Catholic parishes from across Australia have taken part in the 2006 National Church Life Survey (NCLS), the largest inter-church event this year.
'This is a substantial increase over the 1996 and 2001 Church Life Surveys, when about 400 Catholic parishes participated', said Bob Dixon, Director of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference's Pastoral Projects Office.
About 7,000 local churches from across 22 Christian denominations participated in the survey which occurs every five years, coinciding with the national Census.
The survey got underway in Queensland in July, and continued through all States and Territories, concluding in Victoria and Tasmania in October. All church attenders aged 15 and over were asked to fill out one of several different survey forms.
Catholic Church authorities will no doubt await the results of the latest survey with some apprehension, following the continuing decline in practice of the faith revealed by the 1996 and 2001 surveys. These showed regular Mass attendances (at least 2-3 times per month) to have fallen from 18 percent to 15 percent of the total Catholic population. The actual weekly Mass attendance for 2001 was calculated at just over 13 percent.
These figures represented a further decline on 1980s Mass counts showing attendance rates of around 25-30 percent.
The trend could not be clearer, with a further decline to around 12- 13 percent for regular attendance likely to be revealed by the 2006 survey, although its full results are unlikely to be available for some months at least.
Since the attendance rates fall steadily from the oldest to the youngest age categories, there is an inbuilt factor dragging down the overall rate over time. About one- third of the over-60s attend Mass regularly compared with about five or six percent for those in their 20s.
While some may suggest that Mass attendance is only one aspect of religious practice, other research findings show - not surprisingly - that Mass attendance coincides with other indicators of belief and practice.
In one respect, the results of the 2001 NCLS may have offered some consolation to Church leaders, with more Australian Catholics at church regularly (50.2 percent) than the other 19 Christian denominations combined (49.8 percent).
However, less reassuring is the fact that between the 1996 and 2001 surveys, Catholicism suffered the steepest rate of decline (13 percent) of any mainstream church, compared with the Uniting Church's 11 percent and the Anglican Church's two percent over the same period.
These churches, admittedly, are at a lower level, so their rate of decline will tend to be slower. Only five percent of Anglicans and ten percent of Uniting Church members attended regularly in 2001.
In contrast, the smaller Bible-based Christian churches have enjoyed increasing attendance rates, e.g., the Assemblies of God by 20 percent, the Baptists by eight percent and the Churches of Christ by seven percent between 1996-2001.
These increases reflect the fact that churches with a clear identity, that are confident in their teaching and make demands of their members are more attractive to the religiously inclined than those with a 'comfort zone', accommodating approach.
The NCLS 2006 forms distributed in Catholic churches varied, with one headed 'Mass Centre' and another, 'Congregation'. The questions for the first were specifically for Catholics, while those in the second were more general.
The Mass Centre questions focused on frequency of Mass attendance and levels of satisfaction and involvement with the local parish, e.g., 'Do you agree or disagree: 'My spiritual needs are being met in this parish'?'; or 'Do you currently perform any of these leadership or ministry roles here?'
Views were sought on the leadership and direction of the parish: 'To what extent does the parish priest here take into account the ideas of the people?' Or, 'Do you agree or disagree: 'This parish is always ready to try something new'?'
There were few explicitly doctrinal questions that might have shed light on the knowledge, belief and practice of the faith among Catholics. One of these asked for views on the authenticity of the Bible. Was it 'to be taken literally word for word' or 'an ancient book of little value today'?
Another asked: 'Do you accept the authority of the Church to teach that certain doctrines of faith and morals are true, are essential to the Catholic faith, and are to be believed by all Catholics?'
The responses of Mass- attending Catholics to these questions should be revealing.
Liturgically, the respective preferences for 'Traditional style of worship or music' or 'Contemporary style of worship or music' should also shed some light.
However, apart from these kinds of questions, an opportunity has been missed to provide a more detailed overview of the knowledge, belief and practice levels of different age groups attending Mass. This would have served as a useful guide for an urgent re-evangelisation program, given the ineffectiveness of Catholic schools in passing on the essentials of the faith.
Most questions in the NCLS 2006 seemed peripheral to the Church's deeper problems of religious illiteracy and loss of identity, concentrating instead on styles of leadership, the 'vision and directions' of parishes, individual levels of involvement, degrees of satisfaction with homilies, etc.
The answers to such questions will no doubt help some parishes increase their overall effectiveness and fine tune their operations. But such concerns pale into insignificance next to the worsening and seemingly intractable crisis of faith throughout Australia.