Catholicism in Australia: facing the challenges of Western secularism

Catholicism in Australia: facing the challenges of Western secularism

Archbishop George Pell

The following is the edited text of Archbishop George Pell's address to the NSW Press Forum, Parliament House, Sydney, 18 March 2002.

The Catholic Church throughout the world today is a bit short on well-known theologians, especially in comparison with the period during and after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

That gathering of all the bishops throughout the world with the Pope struggled to make the Church more up to date (aggiornamento) and more faithful to the teaching of Christ and its gospel origins (ressourcement). The tension between these two goals is still at the heart of intra-religious debate and discussion in all the Christian churches.

As the Northern European theologians gained influence at the Council with a majority of bishops, who moved cautiously to open some of the windows and gently shake off "the dust of Empire," the secular press took a few of these liberal theologians to their bosom and gave them considerable publicity.

One of these was the young Fr Hans Küng, a Swiss theologian, who was later told by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in December 1979 that he could no longer be considered a Catholic theologian.

More than twelve months earlier, Küng and his friends had written to the London Times on the death of Pope Paul VI to describe the Pope they wanted: non-Italian, preferably not from the first world, aware of social issues, an intellectual and theologically-minded. With the election of Pope John Paul II they got exactly what they asked for and the opposite of what they wanted - which was a mandate for further liberalisation.

The Holy Father was a young bishop at the Council, active among the majority forces, especially in preparing the document on The Church in the Modern World, which changed the Church's position from one of defensive isolation to active engagement and dialogue with all the other players, religious and secular. He has always remained faithful to the Council as a legitimate development of the Catholic tradition.

Pope John Paul II has led the Church into the third Christian millennium, and played a crucial role in the collapse of Communism. By any standards he is a major figure on the world stage. More importantly for our purposes, his policies and writings on many aspects of modern life, ranging from the nature of faith and freedom to the theology of the body, from social justice to the principles of morality and bioethics, have been as effective a challenge to the flabby agnosticism of the English-speaking world as they were to the atheism of the Soviet empire.

Witness to hope

In other words, through the quality of his writings, John Paul II has focused attention, not merely on Christian claims, but on the nature of the human condition, on the beauties and torments of modern living, and the insufficiency of alternative explanations. To my mind, he has made a wonderful contribution to the search for meaning. He has no equal today as a witness to hope.

Modern life, some of the time and especially for its elite members, can breed a deceptive security, a misunderstanding that we are basically in control. On the other hand, all religions start by acknowledging human limitations. I believe it to be a useful social service to attempt to disturb agnostic complacency, to resist attempts to sideline Christian contributions to public discussion.

Everywhere in the West, and certainly in Australia, Christianity is under pressure and some forms are in marked decline. But, after the collapse of Communism, there is nowhere any clear and powerful alternative creed to Christianity. Moslem fundamentalism might continue as a threat, but for most Westerners it is not an alternative. Confident atheism has almost disappeared as an intellectual force, with the rationalist societies in Australia depleted and ageing. Secularist intellectuals have scarcely started to grapple with the ideological significance of the defeat of Communism and Nazism, the two foremost antagonists of monotheism since the pagan Roman Empire.

Educated opinion in Australia is not much concerned (and often happily ignorant) about these issues of religion in society. It is even possible that a higher percentage of those disinterested in religion work in the media.

But many are sustained by an inarticulate conviction that religion belongs to an earlier, more primitive stage of human development; that it is old-fashioned mythology, restrictive on issues of sexuality and life, and that all religions are more or less the same, useless and sometimes dangerous. In other words, they see secularisation as an inevitable consequence of modernisation.

While faith and practice remain high in Catholic Poland, Ireland and Slovakia, the Catholic Church in Holland has collapsed since the Second Vatican Council. As always people remain inconsistent. More people in the British Isles believe in heaven than the afterlife, and more Germans pray than believe in God.

More importantly, the sociological evidence from Europe, the USA and Australia clearly demonstrates that the more conservative religious groups attract greater numbers of followers. It is groups which resist compromise who flourish most successfully in a climate of uncertainty

Left wing or progressive secularists would not be too surprised or dismayed by this conjunction of religious conservatism and expansion. Religion traditionally attracts the wrong sort of people, according to this mind set.

Right wing secularists, also worldly-wise, generally welcome support from any quarter and often have a fondness for the Christian tradition. They too would not be surprised, and certainly not dismayed.

However, the claim that religious conservatism has a monopoly on growth, particularly among young people, is both surprising and unwelcome to a significant section of élite Christian opinion. Older Catholic leaders, who struggled faithfully to implement "Vatican II" and liberate their co-religionists from the constraints of "the fifties", have sometimes simply rejected the claim as untrue. Others are sad; a few vow never to turn back whatever the sociology.

Generally speaking, liberal Catholicism in Australia has been unable to inspire young people to join it. The public protest meetings following the 1998 Statement of Conclusions (issued in Rome after a meeting between the Australian archbishops and curial cardinals) were attended by few, if any, under the age of fifty. Almost as disturbing is the fact that supporters of the Pope have not done spectacularly better among the young. However, the minority of young Catholic adults who are enthusiastic participants are strongly orthodox.


Unlike most of Europe, Australia has seen a marked decline in the "soft" variable of religious self-identification. In 1961, 0.4 per cent of Australians declared themselves irreligious. In 1996 it was nearly 17 per cent, and in the 2001 census it will be higher. At one stage some feared a Catholic collapse in Australia like that of the Dutch Church, but this danger has probably passed in most parts of the country.

I suspect that a major cause for Catholic disaffiliation and lapsing from regular practice is dissatisfaction with Christian teaching on pre-marital sex, divorce and contraception. There is no easy answer to this challenge, given the pansexualism and hedonism aimed at the young in what Les Murray has called the "Californication" of Australia (Les Murray, The Quality of Sprawl: Thoughts about Australia, 1999, pp 41-42).

Catholic women under the age of 35 years in urban Australia are now as irreligious as their male peers. This decline has occurred since 1983 and this equivalence (I am told) has been found in no other country. (Nearly all these statistics are taken from Grace Davie, Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates (2000).)

While regular Sunday worship among Catholics has fallen from about 50 per cent in 1960 to 18 per cent today, attendance at Christmas and Easter is more than double this (a larger percentage increase than occurs in the USA), and the demand for Catholic services in schools, hospitals, welfare and aged care continues to rise. Catholicism is now an accepted part of mainstream Australia and everyone feels entitled to have an opinion on Catholic beliefs and practices. I welcome this. It is a compliment, even when the comments are hostile.

Therefore the larger danger for us, especially in Australia - like Scandinavia but unlike most of Europe - is not that people believe without belonging, but that people belong without believing. Our large system of Catholic schools is a wonderful asset, humanly and educationally successful. But by themselves schools are often unable to inculcate or strengthen faith when it is very weak in a family. This communal Catholic solidarity, this traditional loyalty is a great asset, a framework within which faith can be caught and developed, but it is not the same as Christian faith, only an important step on the way.

In every Mass we ask God to "look not on our sins but on the faith of the Church." Given the weakness of our faith in Australia this might not always be a good investment.

The Catholic Church in Australia faces particular pastoral challenges, for example, in some rural dioceses without seminarians to replace their ageing priests; and as we struggle to find and form a new religious élite to compensate for the disappearance of some of our religious orders. Catholic schools and hospitals are already radically different as the religious have passed into retirement or other areas of life.

Our Catholic situation would be much weaker than it is without the infusion of vigour and enthusiasm from the migrant communities such as the Maltese, Italians and Lebanese, and more recently the Croatians, Vietnamese and Filipinos. These communities remain sources of hope.

Despite the talk about multiculturalism, Australian Catholics, especially the Anglo-Celts but also some ethnic groups, are becoming assimilated to the majority, practising less frequently, slipping closer to being "residual Christians." But, per capita, there are more Christian meditation groups in Australia than any other place in the world!

In broad outline, Pope John Paul has pointed out the only way forward which has some chance of containing and reversing these neo-pagan trends. He realises the cross is a sign of contradiction.

He insists on maintaining worship and prayer, devotion to Christ the Son of God as the primary focus. The substitution into first place of secular alternatives such as social justice or welfare work might keep the Church in public life for a time, but poisons the wells of genuine faith. So too the abandonment of demanding Christian teachings on sexuality, marriage and children might provoke a few favourable editorials, but would gain no converts, and increase the suffering in society.

Beacon of light

The erosion of faith and regular practice will continue, but many of those who departed, and many others disillusioned with our consumer society, will be searching for healing and support in any community able to demonstrate a lived faith and regular service.

The world scene can change dramatically almost overnight. September 11 reminds us of that. The quest for stability and meaning in a community then becomes sharp and urgent. Whatever our imperfections, the enormous presence of the Catholic Church remains as a beacon of light, offering faith and service.

There is a Catholic revival in the United States, which some see as part of a broader "Third Awakening". North American religious idealism spreads everywhere. It will touch us, as all things American seem to do.

Be not afraid. The Church will be speaking the basic Christian message to humanity's deepest needs.

Catholics in Australia need only to stay faithful to the Saviour, hold their nerve and keep talking.

Some, perhaps many, will notice, especially in the media.

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