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Philippa Martyr: Aussie faith by the numbers

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Survey data is filling out the bigger picture of the Church in Australia. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Early signs are, survey’s on the money

Thank you to everyone – all 3,207 of you – who took part in the Catholics in Australia Survey run by Professor Stephen Bullivant and I last year! I thought you’d like to see some preliminary findings while we work on the bigger stuff.

Getting such a generous response was great. But now we have some cleaning up to do.
When you do a survey like this, you are casting a very wide net and you pick up all sorts of queer fish. That’s why every researcher has to clean their data thoroughly before they start using it.

We’d already decided only to use complete sets of responses. Sadly, 709 of you didn’t finish the survey you started, so we had to take those responses out.

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Some of you were so enthusiastic about the survey that you tried to do it more than once! Our software picked this up, so 86 more sets of responses were removed.

Three of you didn’t give consent to take part, so of course we respected that. And another 83 of you weren’t Catholics, so we declined to include your responses as well.

A handful of you gave us non-Australian postcodes – sometimes a four-digit number that looked like an Australian postcode but wasn’t. We couldn’t use your data because we need to know roughly where you are in Australia.

Six of you were under the age of 18, and you should have been doing your homework instead of our survey. We only have ethics clearance for adults, so we removed your responses as well.

Then there was one poor soul who decided to give us the most peculiar set of responses he (and of course it was a he) could come up with.

If you claim to be a daily Latin Mass goer in his 70s who doesn’t accept most major church teachings and has used every form of contraception in the past 12 months, you’re probably somebody having a lend of us.

Obvious trolling does give us a good laugh, so thank you sir! But extreme outliers like this usually don’t make it into final data sets.

So our starting number of 3,207 has now shrunk down to – for now – 2,307 people who we think are pretty solid citizens. That’s still a generous number. How much does this group of Catholics look like Australian Catholics generally? They’re a really good match for age and sex compared to the 2016 Census data on Catholics in Australia.

This was prepared by the National Centre for Pastoral Research and provides a very detailed profile of people who identified as Catholics in the 2016 Census. We can’t use the 2021 Census data yet, because that’s still being analysed.

So age and sex all lined up. But what about where you all live, compared to the national distribution of Catholics?

We have data for our dioceses – we know how many Catholics live in each diocese according to the 2016 Census. But our dioceses don’t match local government areas neatly, so we’ve had to do a rough match of dioceses to postcodes.

The good news is that our sample matches this pretty closely. Only a couple of dioceses are a bit over-represented, and they’re both rural ones, so perhaps it’s not such a bad thing.
Why didn’t we just ask people to identify their diocese? Mainly because a lot of people don’t know what diocese they live in.

This can lead to a high error rate in responses. People from non-Latin rites also aren’t attached to Latin Rite dioceses, so it gets too confusing.

But don’t worry if you’re the only priest in the Diocese of Bedlam who answered our survey, and are now fearing exposure. We won’t tell on you!

We only matched postcodes to give us a rough idea of how many of our Catholics live in cities, in regional centres, or in more remote areas.

We are going to compare our data with a similar survey of British Catholics carried out in 2019. Obviously there are lots of similarities between the UK and Australia, such as language and culture.

But there’s also lots of differences, and one of the main ones is to do with geography. The UK is made up of four small different countries, but Australia is one very large country with six States and two territories.

There are also some ways in which our sample is different from mainstream Australian Catholics, and we’re going to be exploring these. One of them is Mass attendance. I’ll keep you posted.

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