Australian Catholicism's one million "lost": a sociological analysis

Australian Catholicism's one million "lost": a sociological analysis

B.A. Santamaria

In his observations on the present condition of Catholicism, Fr Michael Mason, Redemptorist and sociologist, concentrates upon what is perhaps the most serious of the many fundamental problems facing the Catholic Church in this country. The strategies preferred by AD2000 are not necessarily those which he might propose - the short report of his address in the press does not enter into the question of possible solutions.

More important than solutions because it is prior to them, is recognition and acceptance of the facts: since in the last analysis solutions, insofar as they can be of human origin, must rest on facts.

Stating that approximately one million practising Catholics were "lost" to the Church in the fifteen years between 1966 and 1981; justifying this statement by a recital of some of the characteristic, saddening, statistics - which when produced by others are dismissed as "negative" and "pessimistic" - Fr Mason probes the heart of the problem in three or four short paragraphs:

"Projections for several large dioceses show that by the mid-90s the number of active diocesan clergy in parishes will be a third to a half fewer than in 1976."

Fr Mason said the resulting decline in priestly pastoral care was likely to cause further disaffection, especially among traditional Catholics in working class areas who did not take to a small-group style of Church.

"Most Australian practising Catholics are still of that traditional type, so a study done by the National Catholic Research Council in 1986 shows.

"It will probably be easier for educated middle-class types who belong to some supportive small community to remain active ...

"Without a theologically trained and ordained leadership, it must be expected that such communities would adopt a more Protestant style, with the Eucharist and other sacraments less central to their lives, a greater emphasis on the Word, less awareness of doctrinal and theological traditions, and less tolerance of authority."

To average Catholics, a majority of whom may still comprise "traditional Catholics in working class areas" - but, emphatically, not confined to this social group - the problem lies not so much in the fact that the new church possesses "a more Protestant style" but in the fact that the substance appears to have become increasingly Protestant as well.

This development is exemplified not merely in the field of the liturgy, where the arrogant and brutal destruction of the 'old' Mass has been followed by a limp and occasionally desacralised successor. The sense of 'mystery' has been replaced by chattering friendliness on the part of the congregation within the precincts of the Church, which rarely displays any of the traditional Catholic reverence for the Blessed Eucharist, raising the question of how much real belief in the Real Presence remains.

It is also to be found in the field of doctrine in which the obvious denial of the truth of the Resurrection (as the Church has always understood that central event of its own history) is only one of the many apparently permitted doctrinal deviations. Others include the Divinity of Christ, Christ's self-knowledge, the Virginity of Our Lady - the list is not exhaustive.

It is to be found in the field of moral teaching as the eminent English writer, Paul Johnson, when still an ex-Catholic, observed in 1967, when the majority of the Papal Commission on Human Reproduction recommended that contraception be admissible.

"To my mind," wrote Johnson, "it goes very much further (than contraception) and says that it's not the Church's business to lay down detailed guides for living the Christian life, but merely to state general moral principles and leave the rest to the individual's conscience. This was precisely the central issue of the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church has finally turned Protestant."

It is to be found in the field of Catholic education in which not a few Catholic parents have Judged - rightly or wrongly is not the question - that it makes little or no difference, as far as religious teaching is concerned, whether they send their children to Catholic or Protestant schools.

The final result of the "protestantising" of the Catholic Church, referred to by Fr Mason, is that many, with increasing seriousness, ask the question: "Is this really the Catholic Church to which we have pledged our conviction and our resultant loyalty? Or has it become something else, in the course of an evolution which even so great a Pope as John Paul II, is incapable of reversing?" That is essentially the Lefebvre position, and it is mere folly to sweep it aside as if it did not matter.

Even apart from the fact that that question inevitably arises in the minds of many, there is also an obvious pragmatic judgement on this "protestantising" development. The Catholic Church may have "lost" one million regular Catholics in fifteen years, to use Fr Mason's graphic words. There are still another million left. For the Protestant denominations, however, as the last Census figures prove, the same fifteen years have registered an absolute disaster. That way there is no salvation whatsoever.

The disintegration of contemporary Anglicanism - which began with a repudiation of Papal authority and has ended with a repudiation of episcopal authority ought to stand as a sufficient warning.

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