In November 1996, over 100,000 Catholics were surveyed in parishes across Australia on a wide range of religious topics. Understandably, it has taken much time and work to process all the survey findings, and only in recent months have some of these surfaced.
Fr Michael Mason CSsR, Principal Investigator of the Catholic Church Life Survey (CCLS), has already commented on some of the findings in articles in The Australasian Catholic Record, while in August, Taking Stock: A Profile of Australian Church Attenders was launched. The latter combined findings from the larger National Church Life Survey of non-Catholic denominations with some of those of the CCLS. A complete publication of the CCLS findings is due for release in 2001, according to Father Mason. However, some of the few to hand already offer food for thought.
In one of his articles, Fr Mason identifies the national Mass attendance average of Australian Catholics: "... it seems most likely, on the analysis done so far, measuring attendance in several separate ways, that only about 18 percent of Australian Catholics now attend Mass at the weekend more or less regularly ... This figure of 18 percent represents a very steep decline in Mass attendance, particularly over the last ten years."
Father Mason found that only 63 percent of those aged 15-39 attending weekly Mass accepted the central article of Christian faith that "There is one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit," while 83 percent of those over 60 did so. 80 percent of those aged over 60 affirmed that the consecrated bread and wine "Truly become the sacred Body and Blood of Christ," but only half of those under 40 did so.
Father Mason concludes that while the majority "think of God in ways thoroughly in accord with the faith proclaimed by the Church," a large minority, "about 25 percent of them, mostly aged under 40, and a significant proportion of the most highly educated, conceive of God in ways which would not be considered Catholic."
Taking Stock provides comparisons between Catholic and non- Catholic church attenders that are equally revealing.
On the relative importance of the role of Churches to "convert unbelievers", Mass-going Catholics rated this 12th out of 13 possibilities - the lowest rating given by any Church members (p. 8). By comparison, the role to "Provide social activities" ranked eighth, and to "Provide counselling services" ranked seventh. Pentecostals, on the other hand, ranked the conversion of unbelievers as first in importance and members of the Anglican and Uniting Churches who attended services ranked it fourth.
Another statistic revealed (p. 10) that "Reaching the unchurched" was most valued as a part of their church involvement by only 7 percent of practising Catholics, one of the lowest figures for any denomination. 31 percent of Assemblies of God members ranked this aspect the highest, as did 29 percent of Pentecostals.
Under the category of "The Faith Experiences and Beliefs of Church Attenders" (p. 82), Catholics, compared with the other 21 Christian denominations surveyed, were ranked second last on the proposition: "Strongly agree Christ was God, human, rose from dead." While 57 percent of Mass-attending Catholics accepted this article of faith, the figure for equivalent Anglicans was 61, Lutherans 78, Salvation Army members 80 and Pentecostals 89 percent.
On the question of abortion, only 36 percent of Catholics surveyed agreed that "Abortion should never be permitted", compared with 56 percent of Assemblies of God members, and 52 percent of Pentecostals. Admittedly, only 11 percent of church-going Anglicans thought this. However, 10 percent of Mass-attending Catholics thought "Abortion should be more generally available."
These findings, limited as they are, already pose a challenge for Australia's Catholic bishops as they contemplate the re-evangelisation of their flocks in the new millennium.