Disconnected Catholics

Summary report on Catholics who have stopped going to Mass

A perceived irrelevance of the Church to modern life, the quality of homilies, inter-personal problems with a parish priest, problems with Church teachings or personal faith, and disillusionment in the wake of sexual scandals have been given as the reasons why Catholics no longer attend Mass.

There were also cultural and societal factors which meant that Mass was no longer a priority.

These are the findings of new research that was tabled, in summary, by the Pastoral Projects Office at last week’s plenary of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, in Sydney.  The research would be a help “in understanding the very complex personal, spiritual and cultural factors which have seen a decline in church-going over recent decades”, the Bishops said.

The qualitative research involved 41 interviews and was held in seven dioceses:  Bunbury, Hobart, Melbourne, Parramatta, Perth, Rockhampton and Sydney.  Of those people interviewed, 28 were women and 13 were men. The oldest person was aged 74 and the youngest 29.  Twenty-two of the 41 had been quite involved or heavily involved in parish life, generally participating in and often helping to run a number of programs.

The two major findings of the study are:

1. A large majority of participants believe that the Church is out of touch with the current world and is not relevant to their own lives.

2. In general, participants’ alienation from the Church has been a gradual process in which changing attitudes to Church teaching have interacted with negative personal experiences of Church personnel and regulation.

Another eight supplementary findings are listed.

According to the concluding remarks of the summary, the factors identified by the participants in this research which led them to stop going to Mass are also influencing people who are still regular Mass attenders. “Except in the case of sexual abuse, where one hopes the worst is over, there is no reason to think that the impact of those factors is declining.”

It also says that the Church does have the capacity to take actions which will reduce the likelihood of current attenders joining the ranks of those who have stopped attending and increase the chances of returning of some of those who have left.

And, it seems that all it would take to get several participants to return to regular Mass attendance, or to at least give it a try, is a warm personal invitation.

Historian, commentator and author, PAUL COLLINS, makes the following comments …

At present I am working on a book on the future of Catholicism in Australia, so the research project on Catholics Who Have Stopped Going to Mass could not have come at a better time.

At least the bishops have been honest enough to make public a report that is highly critical of their leadership, although I understand a couple of bishops opposed releasing it.

Australian Catholicism owes Pastoral Projects researcher Bob Dixon a big vote of thanks. This is not the first time he has fearlessly put before the community the facts about the state of the Church, even if they are not particularly palatable.

Nevertheless, personally, I must admit that as I look back over a life dedicated to Australian Catholicism the report made me feel a real sense of disappointment. This is especially true as I reflect on the last two decades.

I am sad for the enormous numbers of people who have given up on the Church who were once so enthusiastic and expended so much energy in their parishes, schools and local organisations. These are the people from the pre- and post- Second World War generations born between 1930 and 1950. These are the classical 'Vatican Two Catholics', the people who lived through the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), probably the greatest revolution in Catholic life since the 16th century Reformation.

Many of them were and still are my friends, but they are no longer involved in the life of the Church. It's not that they don't feel a real sense of loss; they do. Catholicism was, and is, part of the fabric of their being. But they consider that by staying in the institution they are compromised by the contemporary Church. Of course, there are some who have simply drifted away, but most have made conscious and painful decisions to leave the practice of Catholicism behind, even if they still think of themselves as 'cultural Catholics'. It's not something you jettison easily.

It is not as though well-informed Catholics have not been aware of all of the issues highlighted by the report for many years.

Perhaps my own disappointment can be traced back to the fact that 20 years ago in my books Mixed Blessings (1986) and No Set Agenda. Australia's Catholic Church faces an uncertain future (1991) I highlighted these very issues of alienation and eventual abandonment of the Church.

In No Set Agenda I pointed out that 'there are many signs that the Australian Church has entered a perilous period in its development. Catholicism is not facing an external crisis, but a loss of confidence and self-identity. The core of the problem is that the Catholic Church has become lethargic and passionless; it has lost its sense of direction ... It has turned in on itself'. (p 4)

I was still optimistic in 1991 that the Church might recover and that serious change was a possibility. I argued that Catholicism in the early 1990s had entered a decisive period when hard choices would have to be made for survival and when far-reaching decisions about the Church's trajectory in Australian society had to be taken. But clearly nobody with any real influence was listening. Despite the fact that the book sold well and got widespread publicity, nothing was done.

Over the last 15 years very little has happened. In fact things have become worse.

Regular Sunday Mass attendance, usually seen as something of a barometer of the health of Catholicism, continues to decline. The weekly attendance rate in 1996 was close to 18 per cent of all self-reporting Catholics. It dropped to 15.3 per cent in 2001, a fall of 100,000 in five years, or 20,000 per year. Once the 2006 census statistics have been analysed the figure will be even lower, probably hovering around 12-13 per cent of all Catholics.

For those aged between 25 and 34, the drop in attendance was double the over-all average with only about six-to-seven per cent attending regularly.  What is very significant is that the drop in the number of women attending is roughly equal to that of men. Even among older Catholics, practice rates are also falling quite sharply. (statistics from Robert E. Dixon, The Catholic Community in Australia, Christian Research Association and Open Book Publishers, revised edition, 2005, The Catholic Community in Australia, pp 96-8).

Perhaps the greatest dereliction of the Church in the last 35 years has been the failure to hand on the faith to Generations X and Y, people between late adolescence and 40. These are the children and grand-children of the baby-boomers. A few of the younger ones may attend the Sydney World Youth Day 08, but the simple fact is the vast majority of these generations know little or nothing about their faith and probably more than 90 per cent of them have ceased practicing and lost contact with the Church, even though they might call themselves 'Catholics'.

However, there is evidence that an increasing number of Generations X and especially Y have stopped even referring to themselves as 'Catholics' on the census form (see Dixon, Catholic Community, p 91). In other words, they have given up the Church altogether.

Many conservative Catholics have been highly critical of Catholic primary and secondary education which, they claim, has failed to produce Mass-going adults with some of knowledge of their faith and its moral teaching. In fact there has been an interesting longitudinal study of the effectiveness of Catholic schools by Marcellin Flynn which reveals a mixed picture of successes and failures.

My view is a lot depends on the effectiveness of Catholic schools in forming a 'Catholic imagination' in students. We all have a kind of pre-conscious filter, formed by family, socialisation and education, through which each of us views the world. One of the best explanations of this comes from Anglican theologian, Graeme Garrett. He says Catholics still self-identify as Catholics even when they have given up practicing 'because they don't seem to be held so much by ideas as by something more poetic and symbolic, something sacramental'. He defines this as 'a cradling and embracing way of thinking, willing and being that you learn not so much with your head but through other people who already have it, and who mediate it to you via nurturing and formation'.

This is why there are so many 'cultural' Catholics around, people who are no longer convinced by Catholic doctrine and critical of the institutional Church, but still held by a deeper religious feeling that comes to them more by imagination than by reason.

My immediate impression when I look at the contemporary Australian Church is that Catholics are 'a people adrift', as New York Times journalist, Peter Steinfels, described U.S. Catholics. Many of the laity have simply withdrawn and a sizeable proportion feel the Church has abandoned them and is completely uninterested in their concerns.

As a doctor friend with years of experience in family medicine recently said to me: 'I don't feel as though I left the Church ; I feel the Church left me!' What he means is that he and many others sense that the Church is not addressing or even comprehending the real questions that they face in contemporary life. These focus on issues of leadership, sexual abuse and corruption, gender, reproduction, pluralism, equality, and at the deepest level, spirituality.

This sense of alienation is particularly true of women.

Dr Marie Macdonald was the lead researcher and principal author of Woman and Man. One in Christ Jesus (Sydney, Harper Collins, 1999), a 496 page report on the participation of women in the Australian Catholic Church commissioned in August 1996 by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

I still vividly remember the day in August 1999 at the National Press Club in Canberra when Marie Macdonald (the first Australian woman to become a Doctor of Theology) presented the report.

She told the assembled media, bishops and interested parties that during their hearings around Australia she and her colleagues found 'a strong sense of pain and alienation resulting from the Church's stance on women. A dichotomous relationship with the Church, characterised by such feelings as love and commitment yet anguish and alienation, was experienced by both individuals and groups. Pain, alienation and often anger resulted from a strong sense of women's marginalisation, powerlessness and lack ofacknowledgment within the Church. The frustration yet persistence of both women and men of trying to stay with the Church despite their dissatisfaction with the Church's perceived treatment of women was evident. The frankness and sadness of those who had left the practice of the faith and of those who have considered leaving as a result of the Church's treatment of women were obvious. It was clear that many people have hope but in many cases it is faint'.

Yet in the seven years since then very little has been done and the alienation of women, especially younger women, grows ever deeper, even though 76 per cent of pastoral care is done by women. One of the most striking findings of Woman and Man was that women comprised 74 per cent of those undertaking undergraduate studies in theology and almost 64 per cent of post-graduate theological students.   Thus the Church already has a highly trained cadre of women. If nothing else, there is a sizeable pool already trained in theology to excise the ministry and the priesthood as soon as that becomes a possibility.

The Australian Catholic Bishops are yet to receive the full report. The summary will be disseminated throughout the Australian Church for discussion.  It is likely the Bishops will consider their collective response to the report when they next meet in plenary, in May 2007.