Facing up to hard truths
Australia’s Catholics Today
by Michael Gilchrist
(Melbourne: Freedom Publishing)
Hardback: 195 pages
Rec. price: $32.95
(Available from Freedom Books)
Australia’s mainline Christian churches have been facing a challenge of survival in one of the world’s most secularised countries, and especially so since the late 1960s cultural upheaval.
While the Census returns show that close to 70 per cent of Australians admit to being Christian, a large proportion of these rarely darken the doorstep of their local churches, save for weddings or funerals.
While the Anglican and Uniting churches have long been succumbing to secularism, the Catholic Church, being the largest and most structured in terms of doctrines and leadership, was more likely to hold its ground.
Michael Gilchrist’s latest book, however, questions this view, indicating that the Catholic Church in Australia is in fact gradually approaching the situation of the other larger Christian churches, with steady declines in belief and practice in evidence. The vast majority of Catholics are now virtually indistinguishable from other Australians in regard to abortion, IVF, contraception, homosexuality and marriage and divorce.
Much of Lost! is based on the Church’s own detailed statistical surveys of belief and practice in parishes, schools and universities. These go back for up to 30 years and all indicate a continuing decline.
Most regular Mass attenders today are in the older age brackets, while for those just out of school, or in their 20s, the practice rate is down to around five per cent. If this situation continues, the overall average will come down from its present 15 per cent to about five per cent in the coming decades.
Gilchrist is particularly critical of the performances of the Catholic Church’s educational institutions which have failed to teach the faith adequately to new generations over the past 30 years and have contributed to the present precarious situation.
While the Church’s requirements in areas like liturgy, theology and religious education have been clearly spelled out by recent popes, they have been unevenly implemented – not surprisingly, given the numerous documented instances of opposition from highly placed, influential people.
While the general picture is bleak, and worsening, Gilchrist argues that the Church’s leaders have to acknowledge this harsh reality if there is to be any remedial action. He cites recent positive developments, such as the strong leadership of some of the bishops and increases in recruitment to the priesthood.
The radical solutions which Gilchrist suggests in his concluding chapter may seem too strong for the tastes of many “comfort zone” Catholics. However, the alternative to biting the bullet – and soon – will most likely be a “lost” Catholic Church in Australia.
This is not a book for the lukewarm or faint-hearted. Those who are not familiar with recent trends in the Catholic Church may be startled by the gravity of the situation the author documents. But if anything is to be done, people need to face the facts, however unpalatable.