The latest statistics on religious affiliations from the 2006 Australian Census provide little comfort for the leaders of the major Christian churches.
In 1901, the overwhelming majority (96 percent) of Australians described themselves as Christian. One hundred years later, that number has declined to 64 percent (down from 71 percent in 1996). This decline will continue, since the younger the age group the lower the percentage.
The mainline non-Catholic denominations have declined the most, while the Catholic Church has remained fairly stable in recent years at around 25 percent of the Australian population.
The most rapid growth - from very small bases - has occurred with the Christian fundamentalists such as the Pentecostals and the major non-Christian believers, notably Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus.
From a Catholic standpoint, the most disturbing statistic is the number of those brought up as Catholics who have switched to 'no religion'. In 2006, only 64 percent of those under 15 at the time of the 1996 Census who were identified as Catholic (presumably by their parents) still described themselves as Catholic ten years later. And most of these are graduates of the Catholic education system.
This no doubt reflects the influence of secularism, with the number stating 'no religion' continuing to grow, from 16.6 percent of all Australians in 1996 to 18.7 percent in 2006, and with the growth greatest among the younger age categories.
Among those professing any religious belief, the statistics make clear that an undiluted faith attracts and retains adherents while accommodation with the secular culture will ensure further decline.
This is the challenge that faces Catholicism in the lead-up to World Youth Day 2008.
Michael Gilchrist, Editor, email address provided on request.