Statistics from the latest National Church Life Survey (NCLS) indicate that attendances at church services in the large Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church, are continuing to decline. The present figures were based on a five-yearly survey conducted in 2001 - the previous one being in 1996.
In 2001 around 435,000 church attenders from over 7,000 parishes and congregations in 19 denominations took part. Other figures from surveys conducted by individual churches between 1996 and 2001 were taken into account.
NCLS statistics on beliefs and practices among the Churches will be released during the year and are likely to parallel the decline in church attendances.
Earlier figures from the Catholic Church Life Survey of 1996 (run in conjunction with the NCLS) and surveys of Catholic secondary school students by Br Marcellin Flynn and of students at Australian Catholic University by Professor Denis McLaughlin have indicated low levels of belief and practice among the young Catholics who represent the Church's future.
For the Catholic Church, the one positive in the latest NCLS survey is that Catholics, while just over a quarter of the population, are by far the nation's largest church-attenders (50.2 percent). Anglicans are a distant second at 12 percent.
But, compared with 1996, Catholic church attendance has declined by 13 percent. Uniting Church numbers have fallen by 11 percent and Anglicans by just two percent. The Anglican figure, as the NCLS report indicates, "masks different experiences in each diocese" with declines in rural dioceses "counterbalanced by a significant increase in attendance in the Sydney diocese", by far the largest Anglican diocese.
Significantly, Sydney is Evangelical and conservative, as are the various smaller Protestant denominations that continue to grow, such as the Assemblies of God and the Baptists.
Overall, the NCLS survey predicts a bleak future for the major Churches: "It is now unlikely that the large mainstream denominations, with their older age profiles, will be able to replace the large percentages of attenders who will inevitably be lost to death or infirmity in the coming years."
The proportion of the Australian population present at church on a typical weekend in 1996 was 9.9 percent; in 2001 it had fallen to 8.8 percent. At the same time, the proportion of people claiming to identify with a Christian denomination had fallen from 71 percent in the 1996 Census to 68 percent in 2001.
Proportions of the memberships of major denominations at church on a typical weekend were as follows: Anglican five percent, Uniting 10 percent (down from 11 percent in 1996) and Catholic 15 percent (down from 18 percent). By contrast, attendance figures for small fundamentalist Christian Churches were high: Churches of Christ 74 percent, Pentecostal 73 percent and Seventh-day Adventist 68 percent.
Declining levels of belief in Church teachings identified by the 1996 Catholic Church Life Survey are likely to parallel the falling church attendances, given that younger attenders have lower rates of belief.
The 1996 survey found 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.
Under the category of "The Faith Experiences and Beliefs of Church Attenders", 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." Presumably non-attending Catholics would have even lower levels of belief.
On the question of abortion, only 36 percent of Mass attending Catholics agreed that "Abortion should never be permitted", while 10 percent thought "Abortion should be more generally available."
Other recent research has produced similar findings.
Br Marcellin Flynn, the leading researcher on Catholic secondary schools in Australia, has been interviewing thousands of Year 12 students and teachers since 1972.
In 1994, Br Flynn concluded: "A consistent, rapid decline in the religious dimension of the [Catholic] schools has taken place over this period [1972-1990] and ... there are no signs that it is about to be arrested". In a follow-up study, Catholic Schools 2000, he observed: "There is little evidence at present that the drift of youth away from active participation in the life of the Church is about to be arrested ... the alienation of adults and youth from the Catholic Church today remains one of the most pressing pastoral problems of our time."
A similar picture has emerged from the recent research of Professor Denis McLaughlin of Australian Catholic University (McAuley Campus, Brisbane), who found that most ACU students (including student teachers) did not accept Church teaching on such areas as abortion, contraception, the Eucharist and women's ordination.
The situation was similar among Catholic school teachers, according to Professor McLaughlin. "I believe," he said, "the vast majority [of teachers] ... have reservations about the contemporary Catholic Church, their employer."
As for school-leavers: "Data obtained by ACU researchers in Sydney found that 97 per cent of young Catholics abandoned the practice of their faith within 12 months of completing high school".
These statistics are self-explanatory and represent the most pressing challenge the Church has ever had to face in this nation's history.