The Catholic Community in Australia, by Robert E. Dixon

The Catholic Community in Australia, by Robert E. Dixon

Michael Gilchrist

by Robert E. Dixon

(Christian Research Association, 2005, 132pp, $28.00 or $20.00 each for five or more copies, including postage and GST. Available from Christian Research Association, PO Box 206, Nunawading 3131, Vic, (03) 9878 3477, email:

Just published, The Catholic Community in Australia by Robert E. (Bob) Dixon provides a detailed snapshot of the Catholic Church and its membership in this country, including comparisons with earlier statistics and with non-Catholics.

The book draws on the 2001 Australian Census and the 2001 National Church Life Survey in providing its detailed demographic profile.

While the brief outline of the Church's history in Australia provides a helpful backdrop, especially for those not familiar with this area, it is the vast assortment of statistical tables with commentaries that make this book such a an essential reference.

Overall, the proportion of Catholics in the population, having peaked at 27.3 per cent in 1991, was down to 26.6 per cent in 2001, although still leaving the Catholic Church the largest denomination in Australia.

The proportion of Catholics in each state and territory ranged from 19.3 per cent in Tasmania to 29.1 per cent in the ACT.

Where a century ago Catholics were the hewers of wood and drawers of water, today they are almost indistinguishable from the rest of the population in all sectors of employment, whether as labourers or professionals. Likewise, Catholics are attending universities and other tertiary institutions at about the same rates as the rest of the community.

A less positive finding is the fact that barely half of Catholic students attend Catholic primary and secondary schools - 51.7 per cent in primary and 52 per cent in secondary. Most of the balance attend government schools, with the remainder attending other non-government schools (7.1 per cent of all Catholic secondary students).

A further ground for concern - in terms of maintaining the Catholic identity of schools - is the large and increasing proportion of non-Catholic students in Catholic schools, with 18.8 per cent in primary schools (up from 17.0 in 1996) and 26.3 per cent in secondary schools (up from 22.5 per cent).

An informative set of figures (page 90) shows the Census characteristics of Catholics from 1991, 1996 and 2001, and compares these with non-Catholic Australians.

The median age of Catholics has risen from 30.7 to 33.8, compared with 35.8 for the rest of the population. The number of Catholics aged 0-14 has declined slightly, while the over-65s have increased in line with the general greying of the population.

The percentages of Catholics who are married has declined since 1991 from 55.4 to 51.8 (the rest of the population is 51.2) while those who have never married has increased slightly to 32.1 (the rest 31.4). The percentage of those separated or divorced has increased from 7.4 to 10.0 (the rest 11.1) while de facto couples have increased from 8.5 to 12.2, about the same as the general population.

The number of couples of mixed religion had increased from 52.1 to 55.1 per cent between 1991 and 2001, with, overall, a decline in the proportion of Australian marriages celebrated in the Catholic Church since 1991. This has been paralled by a decline in the number of baptisms from just under 80,000 to just under 60,000.

The percentage of Catholics born in non-English speaking countries has declined slightly from 1991 (19.8) to 2001 (17.9) but is still considerably higher than the rest of the population, at 11.9 per cent, as is the case with those speaking a language other than English at home.

Spiritual decline

Another informative statistical table provides comparisons of the sizes of dioceses, along with their numbers of priests and religious. There are considerable variations, with Broome's Catholic population just 10,976 compared with Melbourne's 1,025,055.

While no detailed statistics are available on the numbers at confession, the 2001 National Church Life Survey cited 54 per cent of Mass attenders as stating that they had not been to confession in the past 12 months. Only one per cent went every week and five per cent every month.

There is also a detailed examination of Mass attendances and the characteristics of attendees, some of which was discussed in my article in the May issue.

In short, while Catholics have been more than holding their own in the secular sphere, there has been a steady decline over the past decade in almost every indicator of Catholicity.

This valuable book has much food for thought for Australia's Catholic leaders and decision makers.

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