Is the Catholic Church in Australia 'lost'?

Is the Catholic Church in Australia 'lost'?

Michael Gilchrist

Michael Gilchrist's new book on the condition of the Catholic Church in Australia and what needs to be done to halt or reverse the present decline was launched by Mike Willesee at the Thomas More Centre on 23 October 2006. The book, titled Lost! Australia's Catholics Today, and in hardback, is available from Freedom Publishing for $32.95.

The following article is adapted from the book's Introduction.

The word ‘lost’, as used in the Scriptures, can refer to ‘lost sheep’ or ‘sheep without a shepherd’, in other words today's unchurched Catholics who comprise the vast majority in contemporary Australia, as in other parts of the Western world. It can mean spiritually impoverished, as most of the graduates of the Catholic education system have become since the 1970s. It can point to the loss of identity in many dioceses and Church institutions as well as to those who have ‘lost the plot’ in opting for New Age spiritualities, pantheistic nature worship or radical feminism.

In these and other senses most members of the Catholic Church in Australia are ‘lost’.

Pope Benedict XVI seems to share this assessment, for during a question and answer session in July 2005 with the bishop and priests of the Diocese of Aosta in northern Italy, he referred to the loss of faith in the Western world. He said, ‘The mainline Churches appear to be dying. This is true above all in Australia and also in Europe, but not so much in the United States ... The Catholic Church is not in such bad shape as the historical mainline Protestant Churches, but it also faces the problems of this moment in history’.

While the Catholic Church in Australia may not yet be on its last legs as some Protestant Churches are, its overall condition gives cause for serious concern as it enters its third century, following the first European settlement of New South Wales in 1788. Benedict's words ‘above all in Australia’ prompt one to ask whether the Church in this country can survive as a whole in any meaningfully Catholic sense beyond the 21st century - as distinct from a collection of faithful remnants.

This question is important, not just for Catholics, but for all people of good will, since the Catholic Church is the largest and most cohesive religious body in Australia. If it collapses or is further weakened, there will be little of religious substance left to offset the inroads of secularism to which the other mainline Christian denominations have largely capitulated.

At the best of times, Christianity faces a challenge of survival in one of the world's most secularised nations, but especially so since the fallout from the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s.

The parlous condition of Catholicism in Australia means that the strengthening of orthodoxy must be the number one priority if the Church is to survive with its identity intact. It has to be counter-cultural in the midst of secularism, resisting the soft options of accommodation and relevance. Theological adventurism and liturgical experimentation are luxuries the Church can do without in the present circumstances.

Moreover, a commitment to orthodoxy is the only approach that will attract any of the young on a long term basis, as evidenced in the upswing in vocations reflected in seminary enrolments and the focus of the more successful ecclesial movements and communities that have emerged in recent decades.

‘Spirit of Vatican II’

However, for much of the time since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholicism in Australia has been shaped by well-placed decision-makers seeking a ‘creative’ implementation of the Council's documents, often at odds with their actual content. Where the documents are silent or vague, the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ is confidently invoked.

What has happened within the Church since the late 1960s mirrors trends in the wider society. Emasculated religion programs, sacraments and liturgies have had parallels in the dumbing down of secular subjects like maths, language, history and music. It was not a good time for the Church to be receptive to the trends and mind-sets of the contemporary world.

The steady decline in belief and practice among Australia's Catholics no doubt has had many contributing causes, some of them beyond the Church's direct control. But those who have held the reins over this period deserve to be held accountable - as would be the case in any other failed enterprise, be it in sport, government or big business.

The subjects covered and cases cited in this short book are but a few of the many to hand. Subjects not given in-depth treatment, such as the corruption and disintegration of much of religious life, the inroads of radical feminism through bodies like Women and the Australian Church, the extent to which pantheistic nature worship and neo-paganism have infected Church organisations, the decline of the Catholic hospital system, or, on a positive note, the Church's many new movements and successful religious communities, could have been given separate chapters. Likewise, many more problem dioceses warranted detailed treatment, but I have confined myself to a few of the more striking examples.

Some may consider much of this book to be overly negative or pessimistic. However, I defy anyone to put a positive spin on the present statistics and trends - all of them the results of professionally conducted research. The stark reality - however unpalatable - has first to be grasped if there is to be any turning of the tide. The facts speak for themselves.

While the earlier chapters of this book concentrate on the weakened condition of parts of today's Church in Australia, the later chapters strike a more hopeful note, focusing on some of the positive developments already occurring while advancing a few suggestions for addressing the present difficulties.

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