Demography is destiny

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There will be few Aussie Catholics in the pews on current demographic trends, says Philippa Martyr.

Earlier this year, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s 2016 National Count of Attendance released data showing that only 11.6 per cent of Catholics in Australia attended Mass regularly.

This appeared around the same time Cardinal Pell was convicted, so some people associated the low national rate with people leaving the Church because of scandal.

It certainly didn’t help, but I think a Pell effect is unlikely. Mass attendance in Australia has been in freefall since the Second Vatican Council. In 2001, around 15 per cent of Catholics attended Mass regularly in Australia, so we’ve lost around 3.5 per cent in 15 years. If we continue at this rate, it will speed up over time as the increasingly few remaining practising Catholics die off. By 2050, the practising Catholic in Australia will be close to extinct, or perhaps on display in a glass case somewhere. That’s only 30 years away.

Over half of all dioceses in Australia have Mass attendance rates below 10 per cent. Catholics in non-Latin rites have astonishing attendance rates by comparison, but these are disproportionate, and based on trends in their countries of origin, these rates probably won’t last another generation. (This just leaves our Syro-Malabar brethren, so you guys may have to save us.)

This Mass exodus has solved Australia’s alleged priest crisis in one demographic swoop. Australia has around 3000 priests on its books – mostly diocesan, but also religious. With just 623,356 people attending Mass regularly, that’s currently one priest for every 207 practising Catholics.

Let’s assume a third of those priests are unwell, ailing or unable to say Mass anymore – that’s still one priest remaining for every 311 practising Catholics in Australia. In 30 years, when some of our younger priests will be turning 75, the rate of practising Catholics will be so low that we’ll pretty much have one priest each.

Australia doesn’t have a priest shortage. We have a priest distribution problem. The immediate and most practical solution to this is for a national shakeup based on data from each diocese that would show how to redistribute Australia’s priests more effectively.

Australia is spiritually now mission territory, lurking under a deceptively affluent disguise of bulging Catholic schools and diocesan property portfolios. The Plenary Council would be a great place to discuss this, but this issue doesn’t seem to have survived the stampede for lay parish leadership, more inclusive ministry and a formalised hand-sanitisation rite.

Some dioceses have begun reshuffling, and others desperately need to. Catholics can drive.

If they can’t, their dioceses can buy buses and organise shuttle runs to Mass centres.

Will everyone enjoy this? Hell, no. This kind of restructure would be excruciating just from an administrative point of view, with the rules around incardination. It would be especially excruciating when it became clear how many of Australia’s priests were unwilling or unable to move from, say, the comfortable suburbs to the red dirt interior.

Maybe we should start praying not just for vocations, but for an increase of practising Catholics to receive that ministry. In 2017, 7,316 Catholic couples got married in a Catholic religious ceremony in Australia. Unfortunately, we can only assume that 11.6 per cent of them are practising – just 848 couples, or 1,696 people.

This wouldn’t even fill St Mary’s Cathedral, so they certainly have their work cut out for them. May they be fruitful and multiply.

Dr Philippa Martyr is a lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Medical sciences at UWA