If one wishes to report on positive things happening in the Catholic Church in Australia today, there are plentiful examples. This journal has devoted much space in recent years to strong episcopal leadership, upturns in seminary numbers, new religion texts and renewal programs based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, outstanding parish initiatives, flourishing religious communities, promotion of Catholic culture and university youth ministry endeavours.
However, when we survey the broader picture of the Church's condition, these positive phenomena are seen more in perspective as scattered shoots in a spiritual desert of apathy, ignorance, dissent, incompetence and unbelief. The inroads of our pervasive secular culture are all too evident.
Statistical information on levels of belief and practice over the past 20-30 years indicate a steady downward trend in the major indicators of spiritual health.
Decline in practice
When AD2000 was launched in 1988, weekly Mass attendances were around 25-30 per cent nationally. Today they average 15 per cent, with some dioceses under ten. The Catholic Church Life Survey of 1996 showed the attendance rate of those aged 16-25 at less than five per cent, so that over time, the national rate is likely to reflect this. Numbers at confession have shown similar declines.
Despite the vast output of Papal and Vatican documents covering most aspects of Catholic belief and practice, the gulf continues to widen between the messages these convey and what people actually know, believe or practise.
Even among the relatively few priests and teachers prepared to address the problem, there is reluctance to disturb a comfortable status quo of ignorance and non-practice. To do so can result in anger, confrontations, complaints and most likely trouble for oneself from authorities for daring to rock the boat.
There was hope six years ago that the crisis of faith might be seriously addressed with the release of the Statement of Conclusions and its subsequent endorsement by the Australian bishops conference.
However, as far as many bishops seem concerned, the Statement belongs in the too-hard basket.
In most of the areas highlighted in the Statement, there is little evidence of problems being addressed substantially. At the parish level, Catholics concerned about the health of the Church find little has changed for the better, and in some cases has worsened.
What is to be done?
The bottom line for any turning of the tide is strong and sensitive leadership from all of Australia's bishops. This means demonstrating the courage of their convictions, showing an understanding of the seriousness of the situation and formulating effective programs for grappling with the crisis. In too many cases, denial is the name of the game.
It would be encouraging, for example, if the bishops of Australia as a body launched a well-publicised program of perpetual adoration in cathedrals and parishes across the country during the year of the Eucharist and encouraged all Catholics to participate. This would be a telling challenge for the faithful to stand and be counted.
In addition, individual confessions should be made available at convenient times before and after Mass, and during perpetual adoration. The option of anonymity would make it easier for Catholics who have fallen away from practice of the faith over many years.
Vigorous campaigns to promote priestly vocations, including emphasis on the essential nature of the priesthood, could also be linked with perpetual adoration.
The over-use of lay people as substitutes for priests should be wound back as this has had the effect of diluting the importance of priests and discouraging vocations. The excessive and unwarranted use of Extraordinary Ministers of Communion should be brought to an end.
The release of the revised translation of the Missal will be an opportunity for Australia's bishops to tighten up generally on liturgical celebrations. Redemptoris Sacramentum has set out the problem areas to be addressed and bishops need to ensure all priests understand their serious obligation to follow the Church's liturgical rubrics with due solemnity.
Catholic education - including Catholic Education Offices and Australian Catholic University - needs to be subjected to close scrutiny. Only practising Catholics should be permitted to teach religion while religion programs should be examined closely to ensure they are in accord with the teachings of Catechism of the Catholic Church. Parish priests should be encouraged to play a more active role in their schools, although programs of re-education in the faith may be needed for both teachers and priests to ensure this is effective.
Ultimately, responsibility lies with Rome to ensure that the local Church is equal to the task of addressing the crisis of faith and the inroads of secularism. This means that only holy, orthodox priests possessed of intellect, courage, people management and communication skills and mass media confidence should be considered for the episcopate.
It is not enough to have bishops of this calibre in the largest dioceses. All dioceses, however small, are important in the total scheme of things, not least for ensuring that the Bishops Conference is committed to turning the tide before time runs out for the Catholic Church in Australia.