Statistician registers numbers of believers - but what do they believe?

Statistician registers numbers of believers - but what do they believe?

B.A. Santamaria

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has at last produced the results of the 1986 Census, insofar as they measure religious affiliation.

There is a good deal in this particular statistical record to evoke satisfaction among those Catholics to whom membership of the Church is like membership of a football club. For the first time in Australian history, Catholics constitute numerically the largest denomination in Australia. There are somewhat more than 4 million of them, or 26% of the entire Australian population, while the Anglicans, who were 39% of the population in 1947 are now down to 24%. If that makes anyone feel cheerful, in the same sense as a football barracker supporting his team, he is welcome to the satisfaction he derives from the figures.

The statistics, however, illustrated another more important development. Until 1933, the householder was legally compelled to disclose the denomination to which he belonged to the canvasser who called on him. In that year, the requirement was abolished. The original category "no religion" was divided into two, "no religion" and "not stated". No one can be certain as to how far the views of the two groups are identical. But they are generally regarded as extensively overlapping.

If that is so, approximately 25% of the Australian people no longer have a specific set of religious beliefs, which is slightly more than the number of Anglicans and slightly less than the number of Catholics. It is this section of Australia's population which is growing most rapidly of all. In 1966, the two categories totalled 11%, in 1971 13%, in 1976 20%, in 1981 22%, in 1986, just under 25%. The most rapid increase was between 1966 (11%) and 1976 (20%) which was when the beliefs - or lack of them - of the '60s generation began to register.

That situation is further clouded when one examines the actual situation among those who designate themselves 'Catholic' or 'Anglican'. Of the latter no more than 6% go regularly to church. Of the 4 million Catholics, no more than 22-23% at the most take their religion seriously enough to go regularly to Sunday Mass, whereas at the beginning of the sixties the proportion was 54%. Even of the 800,000 who do attend Mass regularly, one must ask oneself, "Exactly what do they believe?" For it is beyond debate that, whatever about the rest, a high proportion of those under 35 have little knowledge of essential Catholic dogmas, and do not regard themselves as bound by the professedly binding moral teachings of the Church.

In the early years of this century, the strongly anti-Roman Anglican, Bishop Charles Core, rightly predicted that Christianity would split into clearly opposed systems of belief. As he saw it, Christianity was divided between those who saw it as a revelation from above downward, and those who saw it as an evolution from below outward. This has now come about as much within the Catholic as within the Anglican communion. In both denominations, those who take the second position are effectively in control of the greater part of the ecclesiastical bureaucracies especially that section controlling the education of the young.

The results have long been clear. The noticeable emphasis on "earth-keeping", the Rainbow Serpent, the Dreamtime and similar themes in Aboriginal spirituality, in the declarations of the recent international assembly of the World Council of Churches is parallelled by the current "greening" of the Catholic Church, particularly in the invasion of the liturgy by ecological and environmental symbols, proposals to fly aboriginal flags (see p. 4), dancing, miming and the entire modernist paraphernalia. What it represents, in brief, is the substitution of the current - and largely infantile - pantheism for religious truths revealed from above.

A main influence in establishing this fundamentally pantheist 'style' was the partly forgotten Fr. Teilhard de Chardin whose The Phenomenon of Man was published in English in 1959, on the very eve of Vatican II. Thirty years later, his pantheist ideas have worked their way through the system.

Those who, at the time, suggested that beneath his incomprehensible language de Chardin was in fact a pantheist, were simply howled down by that generation of Catholic progressives.

One - not a Catholic, nor even a Christian, but an agnostic - who was not intimidated, was a first rate scientist, Nobel Prize winner, Sir Peter Medewar. In his review of The Phenomenon of Man, he made it clear that he understood what de Chardin was getting at, even if many Catholic philosophers did not.

"His book stands square in the tradition of 'nature philosophy, a philosophical indoor pastime of German origin which does not seem even by accident (although there is a great deal of it) to have contributed anything of permanent value to the storehouse of human thought." De Chardin, he added, "practised an intellectually unexacting kind of science in which he achieved a moderate proficiency", he had "no grasp of what makes a logical argument or what makes for proof" and wrote "in an all but totally unintelligible style which is construed as prima facie evidence of profundity". All of this made no difference whatever. Teilhard rests at the roots of the 'greening' of Christianity, which is transforming those who espouse it into pantheists. Simultaneously, another branch of the 'green' religion inspires the New Age movement.

How different the trend of events in the Soviet Union - at least until this point in its political evolution - after seventy years of bitter persecution. Argumenty I Fakty (circulation 24 million) reports on a survey which indicates that there are 90 million believers of different denominations, roughly 33% of the population. Another survey indicates that this figure is likely to be revised upwards, since many believers are still cautious in declaring their belief. In view of the fact that, after two hundred years of the free exercise of religious practice and the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars, only 73% of the Australian population designate themselves as Christian, of whom little more than one sixth practise, freedom of religious practice is hardly conducive to religious fervour, while the massive expenditure hardly appears to have been cost-effective.

As the prominent French writer Alain Besançon wrote of the contemporary French Church - in a judgement of universal applicability: "I do not see how anyone with a moral, intellectual and spiritual appetite could be interested in Catholicism as it is presented in the Catholic press and by the Church in France. As they present it, it is something empty and without form ...".

Until the parameters of who is, and who is not, a Catholic are clearly drawn and insisted upon, there will be no recovery. Anglicanism seems to have reached the point of no return.

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