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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

The Catholic Community in Australia, by Robert E Dixon



Here's a way to test what you know about the Australian Catholic story. Suppose the compiler of an encyclopaedia approaches you with a request to write an entry "Australia, Catholicism in", 700 words, deadline in two months. Where would you start? Who would you put in? What would you leave out? It would be, I think you will agree, a truly testing assignment. Especially getting it all down to 700 words - that would be a challenge indeed, wouldn't it? I know, because ten years ago I tried to do it for an American encyclopaedia and it proved to be the toughest writing job I've ever had, comparable only with writing for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, where you have to get someone's life and personality to fit into a few hundred words without omitting essential information such as family, friends, degrees, publications or jail sentences. When The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism arrived, I was happy enough with what I'd writing, even though B A Santamaria had become Bob A Santamaria; and someone had added to my little essay a sentence that admired what the Australian bishops had done for the Aborigines.

The General Editor of the encyclopaedia, Richard P McBrien of Notre Dame, had been in some trouble with Australian bishops over his big work Catholicism; so this emollient sentence may have been his way of currying favour. Well, big boys don't whinge; and it was too late to do anything about it, anyway. (Incidentally, when you're next at the library, look up this encyclopaedia's entry for Howard R Engel, b.1930, physician. The only reason that I can see for this local doctor's appearance in an international encyclopaedia is that he happened to be McBrien's GP, as well as the GP for many of the Notre Dame faculty and their families. Dr Veech once told us that the French poet Apollinaire made his living by writing for encyclopaedias; after a good lunch he would return to the office and invent an entry or two. It was Veech's way of teaching us that encyclopaedias, for all their marmoreal authority, were written by fallible human beings, not machines; a lesson I recalled when I came across an error in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. The Howard R Engel entry in the McBrien encyclopaedia may have been a postprandial joke.)

These old memories come to my mind because I have just received my copy of Robert E Dixon's The Catholic Community in Australia (Openbook, $28), an update of his 1996 text The Catholics in Australia. Setting himself the test I mention above, he starts with a short chapter on the history of Catholic presence here. I applaud Dixon's achievement in compressing the story within ten pages, starting with the First Fleet (laymen, no clerics) and going right through to Vatican II, to which he devotes generous space. Then comes information about Catholic beliefs, practices, organisations and diversity (e.g. Maronites and Melkites), largely unchanged from the 1996 version. An exception to this is the sub-chapter on the Bishops Conference, which is newly written and includes the teasing news that he is currently researching why mature-aged Catholics who have been lifelong Mass attenders have stopped going to Mass in recent years. And he addresses the sexual abuse issue.

The meat and potatoes of the book, however, comes halfway through, when he beings his analysis of information from the 2001 national census. It's a blizzard of statistics but it should be on the shelves of anyone offering to speak, write or teach about the Australian Catholic experience. To start with, there's a lot of us: over 5 million, the census says. Many of the facts will be well-known or rightly guessed: there's little difference in the marital status of Catholics and other Australians; Catholics with bigger families send their children to Catholic schools; Catholics hold the less important jobs; the younger ones have better educational qualifications than older ones; women are becoming better educated than men; Catholic fertility is declining; new Catholics come from Asia (Vietnam, the Philippines); we're getting more prosperous; in recent years many people, particularly young adults, have ceased to identify themselves as Catholics. Dixon bulks up the findings of the census with soundings from other surveys. So he finds, for instance, that Mass attendance, dropping at a rate of 20,000 each year, is pretty well where it was 150 years ago. More than half of all Mass attenders said that they hadn't been to the first rite of Reconciliation at all in the previous 12 months; more than that said they hadn't taken part in the second rite. Baptisms are down; and more Catholics are using civil celebrants for their marriages.

What does all this mean? Dixon's statistical findings will feed the discussions that happen whenever two or three people in pastoral roles get together. There's one paragraph (p.93) that might prove to be a very fruitful discussion starter at seminars of the National Council of Priests, Catholic Education Offices or departments of the Australian Catholic University. It's a reworked text from the 1996 edition of this book; as such, it shows how Dixon's own judgement has changed and expanded in the years since that first book, under pressure of more recent research. If you do use this paragraph for discussion, you should go back and look at the first version (p.104), to see what is new here: finding identity through non-parochial bodies; and anger or impatience, which it would be a mistake to read as disaffection. Anyway, here's the paragraph:

"Identifying the active Catholic community at the present time is a fairly complex task. In former times, the active community was easy to identify; it was made up of 'practising' Catholics, those who attended Mass in their parish every Sunday. Those who did not attend, or who attended only rarely, were often referred to as 'lapsed'. But today the situation is much more ambiguous. The community can no longer be neatly divided into those who attend Mass weekly and those who rarely or never attend. Some Catholics attend perhaps once or twice a month but not every week. Large numbers who attend Mass only rarely, if at all, may be quite actively involved in the parish school attended by their children. Others see their work in Catholics schools, hospitals or other institutions as the most appropriate way for them to express their faith and participate in the Catholic community. Still others, having grown angry or impatient with the Church for some reason, have stopped going to Mass but still belong to one or more Church-related groups. In some sense all these people together with those who are at Mass every Sunday constitute the active community."

Finally, may an old church historian congratulate our bishops for having the vision to establish and continue funding their Pastoral Projects Office, which has produced The Catholic Community in Australia. I don't suppose a more useful book will be published in 2005.

The Work:

  • The Catholic Community in Australia. Robert E Dixon (Openbook $28)




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