According to the most recent Australian Census, Catholics remain the largest single religious denomination at 27 per cent of the population. However, statistics on Catholic beliefs and practice indicate a continuing decline.
Bob Dixon, Director of the Pastoral Projects Office of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, has analysed data from the 2001 National Attendance Count conducted by the Pastoral Projects Office as well as from the 2001 National Church Life Survey and this provides the basis for the present report.
"The current state of church attendance among Australian Catholics," says Dixon, "poses a significant challenge for the Catholic Church in Australia". On a typical weekend, an average of 765,000 people attend church in Catholic parishes and other centres around the country, representing about 15.3 per cent of the Catholic population of 5,001,624 according to the 2001 Census.
The attendance figure was based on a head count conducted in all parishes on each of the four weekends of May 2001.
In addition, according to the 2001 National Church Life Survey, about 87 per cent of people at Mass on a given weekend attend every week or almost every week, so that 13.3 per cent of all Catholics actually attend Mass with this frequency.
The 1996 estimates, based on counts from various dioceses, indicated that the attendance rate then was close to 18 per cent, so that since then numbers at Mass have been falling nationally by an average of 20,000 each year.
"This is only the most recent part of a steady decline which began at least 25 years ago", says Dixon. The latest figures "provide a stark contrast with the 1950s, when the weekly attendance rate for Catholics may have been as high as 60 to 65 per cent".
Dixon adds: "An examination of the age profile of Mass attenders strongly suggests that the steady fall in attendances will continue for some time to come".
This is because a disproportionate number of Mass attenders come from the older age categories, with, for example, rates of 27.4 per cent (down from 33.5 per cent in 1996) for 60-64-year-olds and 31.1 per cent (down from 36.4 per cent) for 65-69-year-olds.
Among younger Catholics, only 6.8 per cent of 20-24-year-olds attended regularly (down from 7.2 per cent in 1996) and 5.6 per cent of 25-29-year-olds (down from 7.0 per cent) attended.
A likely consequence of the low attendance rate of Catholics in their twenties, says Dixon, is that there will probably be further large falls in the number of children attending Mass in the next few years, "since almost all children who attend Mass go with at least one of their parents. If fewer people in the generation which is beginning, or will soon be beginning, to have children are Mass attenders, there will also be fewer children at Mass."
In 2001, 11.4 per cent of children aged 0-14 were at Mass (down from 14.8 per cent in 1996), while for those aged 15-19, the figures were lower still.
Beliefs and practices
In the case of acceptance of the Church's doctrinal and moral teachings, this tends to parallel Mass attendance patterns among the different age groups.
The National Church Life Survey of May 2001 included a random sample of 261 Catholic parishes from about 1,400 across Australia. From the 255 parishes in the sample which actually took part, 78,255 completed questionnaires were received.
Some versions of the questionnaire contained a series of questions about central Catholic doctrines and moral teachings and were completed by 10,805 Catholic attenders from the national random sample of parishes.
The three belief items dealt with views about the virgin birth, the Eucharist and the nature of God, while the morality items concerned abortion and pre-marital sex.
Acceptance of the virgin birth among Mass attenders was broadly similar across age groups, ranging from 73 per cent for 18-24-year-olds to 81 per cent for those aged 56 or over.
The differences between age groups were more pronounced in the case of belief in the Eucharist truly being the Body and Blood of Christ. Only 46 per cent of 15-17-year-old Mass attenders accepted this doctrine, whereas 81 per cent of those aged over 56 did so. In between these groups the level of belief rose with age.
Belief in God as the Holy Trinity again reflected age differences, with 51 per cent of 15-17-year olds accepting it, increasing to 78 per cent for over 56-year-olds.
Generational differences were also marked in the case of the Church's moral teachings.
In regard to premarital sex, only 20 per cent of Mass attending 15-17-year-olds considered this to be always morally wrong, 27 per cent of 18-24-year-olds thought so, and this rose to 65 per cent for those over 56.
In the case of abortion, 31 per cent of those aged 15-17 thought it always morally wrong, 34 per cent of those aged 18-24 did so, while the figure rose to 50 per cent for those aged from 40-55 and 64 per cent for those aged over 56.
A significant percentage in all age groups thought abortion could be justified, but only in extreme circumstances.
Within each of these age groupings, Bob Dixon found variations according to the level of parish involvement, with the highest level of acceptance of the Church's doctrinal and moral teachings among "parish involved Catholics", a lower level for "Sunday Catholics" and lower still for "intermediate Catholics" (irregular Mass attenders).
But if acceptance of the Church's doctrinal and moral teachings is already relatively low even among the 15 per cent of regular Mass attenders, it is likely to be even lower among the remaining 85 per cent of irregular or non-attenders.
Clearly, the Church in Australia faces an immense challenge if it is to re-evangelise its parishes and find more effective ways of communicating the faith in its schools.