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Philippa Martyr: How do Aussie Catholics rate their bishops’ leadership?

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Bishops and cardinals attend the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on 9 October, 2014. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

The Catholics in Australia 2022 survey asked people two optional questions about how they rated church leadership—the Australian bishops generally, and their own local bishop.

This is a sensitive area if you happen to be a bishop. But just over 90 per cent of the participants chose to answer this question, so they clearly wanted to be heard.

How do you rate leadership? It’s different from saying that you like someone.

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You may dislike them or disagree with a person but you can still respect how they make decisions, respond to problems, and communicate with others.

Just over 2100 people responded to each question, and the good news is that 29 per cent of them rated the Australian bishops’ leadership as “good.”

Twenty-two per cent said it was “reasonable” and 49 per cent said it was “poor.” There was almost no difference in the over-40s and under-40s, but the women tended to be a bit kinder than the men.

The over-40 women were the kindest: 33 per cent of them said the Australian bishops’ leadership was “good” but another 43 per cent of them said it was “poor.”

If you were a Catholic born outside of Australia, you were also more likely to say that the Australian bishops’ leadership was “good”—37 per cent, versus just 26 per cent of locals.

Converts rated the bishops’ leadership the same way as cradle Catholics. But going to Catholic schools made you slightly less likely to rate the bishops’ leadership as “good”—just 28 per cent, while 50 per cent rated it as “poor.”

The more often you go to Mass, the more likely you are to cut the bishops some slack. An impressive 32 per cent of weekly Mass-goers rated the bishops’ leadership as “good,” compared to just 23 per cent of “irregulars” and 12 per cent of “nevers.”

No matter how I diced and sliced it, the data seemed to keep returning the same basic proportions. About a third of all Catholics in this survey thought the Australian Catholic bishops’ leadership was “good,” a smaller chunk thought it was “reasonable” and close to half thought it was “poor.”

Australian bishops concelebrate Mass in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring
Australian bishops concelebrate Mass in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring

When it came to rating local bishops, the results were a bit different. In psychology there’s a thing called in-group bias—we tend to be nicer to people who we think belong to us in some way.

This means that rating “my bishop” or “our bishop” might look a bit different from rating a faceless group of bishops. And sure enough, people were kinder to their local bishop.

I only had tiny samples from some dioceses, which can also cause problems. If only two people in the diocese took part, and they were the bishop and his mum, he might get a 100 per cent approval rating (if he’s been good).

So I’ve limited myself here to dioceses with at least 20 respondents overall. I think if you asked a random group of 20 anonymous Catholics in any diocese to rate their bishop’s leadership, you’d get a reasonable range of views.

This number is also low enough to let me include the some of the smaller dioceses in Australia. But I still had to leave out Armidale, Bathurst, Broome, Cairns, Darwin, Geraldton, Port Pirie, Toowoomba, and Wilcannia-Forbes.

I can tell you that overall, 39 per cent of the Catholics in my survey rated their local bishop’s leadership as “good” and 44 per cent rated it as “poor,” regardless of their age group.

The best thing for your local bishop is if you were born outside Australia (48 per cent “good”), went to Mass every Sunday (43 per cent “good”), and never attended a Catholic school (40 per cent “good”).

Women were more likely to rate their local bishop’s leadership as “reasonable” than men were. But they were also more likely to rate his leadership as “poor” than men, regardless of their age (under or over 40).

And who are Australia’s most appreciated local bishops? Just four got a “good” leadership rating from more than 50 per cent of their people.

They were Bishop Gregory Homeming OCD in Lismore (63 per cent of 35 responses) Archbishop Julian Porteous in Hobart (59 per cent of 41), Bishop Michael McCarthy in Rockhampton (54 per cent of 37), and Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP in Sydney (52 per cent of 292).

And who were bottom of the class? There were four whose “good” leadership rating was under 25%. None of them was an Archbishop (but one of those was close). And that’s all I’m telling you this week!

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