Next week, households around Australia will sit down to complete the quinquennial census. This arguably boring task nevertheless yields quite important results, with statisticians from the Australian Bureau of Statistics slicing and dicing the numbers to reveal a snapshot of Australia. Their work tells us about our average age and gender, our ethnic background and languages spoken, our family structures and living arrangements, our education, employment status and income and our religious beliefs.
The information is crucial for governments, of course, but also very important for the Church.
If we are to follow Pope Francis’ call to go out to the peripheries and encounter those on the margins of society, this census will give us a better picture of those to whom we must go. It will also assist the countless Catholic agencies providing care to the poor, sick and needy to determine the best use of their resources.
And if, as Blessed Pope Paul VI told us, the Church exists in order to evangelise, the census will tell us much about those to whom we are trying to reach. The census can be an excellent resource in spreading the Gospel in Australia.
Unfortunately, there is currently a campaign for the exact opposite.
The Atheist Foundation of Australia is undertaking an advertising campaign to encourage people to mark “no religion” in response to the religion question on the census.
The number choosing “no religion” has grown in recent decades, with 22.3 per cent of people reporting “no religion” in the 2011 census. The “nones” were only beaten by Catholics, who made up 25.3 per cent of the responses.
This year, for the first time, “no religion” will be the first option on the list and if trends in other countries are anything to go by, it is anticipated that this simple change will see the number of “nones” dramatically increase. The Atheist Foundation is hoping to capitalise on this, with advertisements pushing for the “no religion” vote. It is ironically quite evangelistic of them.
A high “no religion” vote would support the claim that Australia is a secular nation in which religion should be pushed from the public square.
One of the most interesting things about the campaign is the section of the website devoted to answering the question: “Am I a Christian?” The website tells a person that baptism does not make them a Christian, nor does attending Church, nor does identifying with Christian values. The official position of the Atheist Foundation is that a person is not Christian unless they accept all of the tenets of faith outlined in the Nicene Creed.
I will leave to the side the irony of the Atheist Foundation having an opinion on what does and does not make a person Christian, and instead focus on the important question it raises: what makes a person Christian?
I have to confess that I agree in part with the Atheist Foundation. Going to Church does not necessarily make us a Christian, nor does identifying with Christian values.
Baptism brings us into the family of the Church, transforming us into a child of God for all eternity, but does not ensure we will remain in communion with the Church.
Even acceptance of the Nicene Creed alone might not do it, particularly if our lives do not reflect the statement of faith we profess.
In truth, on my good days, I might pass the “test” as to whether I am a Christian, but in my weak days, I would definitely fail.
This is because “being a Christian” is not dependent on something we do. Pope Benedict XVI told us that “we are Christians only if we encounter Christ.” The question is not “what makes a person Christian?” but rather “who makes a person Christian?” It is Christ, and not us, Who makes us Christian.
This is incredibly good news. It is something which the Atheist Foundation will never understand. And it is something that we as Christians can sometimes forget, particularly when our sins are big and our hearts are heavy.
In these times, we need to remember that faith comes from a loving God Who restores us every time we seek Him after failing the “Christianity test” and, like in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, welcomes us back into the family with a great celebration.
No one, and definitely not the atheists, has a right to tell anyone that they are not Christian. No one has a right to presume to take a person out of the reach of God’s love and mercy, particularly in this Jubilee Year.
Encouraging people to answer “Catholic” on this census is not about winning a numbers game against the atheists (as sweet as that victory would be!) It is about reminding people who would be tempted to think that their lives are such that they could never be part of the Christian family that there is nothing which can separate them from the love of God.