One of the worrying trends in the Church has been the decline in effectiveness of lay apostolates over recent decades. Pope John Paul II put a lot of energy into what became labelled as the "New Ecclesial Movements" like the Neo Catechumenate, the Legionaries, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, and Focolare. As time has moved on, however, these have in many ways been seen to be quite political and again basically endeavours that have their appeal within that same 5% cohort of the insecure that have been "setting the agenda" and, I would argue, helping distance the institution further and further from the wider population in the Western world. In the end they have not served as a substitute for the older, more traditional lay apostolates like, in this country, the Knights of the Southern Cross, the university-based intellectual apostolates, and the Catholic Women's League, which played such a crucial leadership role in the development of the institution.
In the Australian context, Catholics as a group owe an enormous debt to the Knights of the Southern Cross in particular as it was their quiet work between the 1920s and 1950s which played a significant role in helping lift Catholics out of the realm of being second class citizens in their own land and helped to break down many of the barriers of discrimination that existed in the professions and in general employment and attitudes towards Catholics.
I honestly do not know if anybody has done any serious study of the demographic breakdown of the drift in recent decades. My personal suspicion though is that the Church has suffered a larger drift from Catholics who in previous decades would have been in the sectors of society producing business, community and political leaders and also the more educated elites. My own personal experience has been with apostolates such as the Knights and university Catholic graduate and undergraduate societies. For all the positives of the massive inflow of government money into Catholic education and the health care sectors since the 1970s there has also been a downside. The upside has been the drift of "the best and brightest" into positions of paid employment with the institutional Church. Prior to 1970 these people — for example the most committed Catholics who happened to be teachers (but whose only place of employment was in the State systems) — were the natural recruiting ground for the elite lay apostolates (the one's from which a community's leadership is drawn). In a sense today the institution has siphoned up many of the most committed into positions of paid employment within the institution and this has led to a withering of these lay apostolates that in earlier decades played a crucial role in forming a sense of Catholic communio and helped create the Catholic culture in this nation.
While the Church in one sense is far better off today in having this enormous, and highly qualified professional workforce, the reality is that that workforce is largely gagged from speaking publicly. (Just look at the treatment that Ian Elmer is subjected to when he ventures onto public discussion boards to understand how this "gagging" mechanism works and to understand why most people employed professionally by the Church are petrified of speaking in public — and for that reason largely confine their work to private forums where the doors can be locked to the hoi polloi.)
My experience has been that the Church actually receives a secondary benefit from this enormous workforce she is now able to employ. I have worked in both the State and Catholic Education sectors and at the public tertiary education level. Without any shadow of doubt I have no hesitation in saying the Catholic employees of the Church give over and above their contractural obligations to their employer in an enormous further donation of voluntary commitment. In schools this is given by way of after-hours commitments to sport coaching, performing arts programs and in liturgical preparation and social justice works at the parish or general community level. When all that is added to the 35-40 hours of paid employment I suspect the Church, across the board, probably gets a commitment from her paid workforce of somewhere between 40 and 50 hours per week per employee. At the end of that these people simply do not have the time, or the energy, to then go committing a further ten hours a week to the work of some lay apostolate.
I have had experience as a beneficiary of what might be broadly called adult faith formation programs run by organisations such as the Knights and at parish level and those that are provided within the paid workforce the institutional Church can now afford to employ. The formation programs that lay apostolates like the Knights run for their members are not nearly as sophisticated and engaging compared to what is available to teachers in Catholic schools or to nurses and medical staff in Catholic hospitals or Catholic aged care facilities.
While the drift of young Catholics is steep wherever one looks my suspicion is that the drift is probably even steeper from the more educationally elite Catholic schools and colleges. This is a great pity and does not auger well for the institution.
There are reasons to be concerned about lay apostolates today though. Almost universally as I understand it their numbers are falling and their work becoming less and less effective. Perhaps over the next few months through the pages of Catholica we might give some attention to the problems being faced by lay apostolates in the Church today.
- What can be done to again attract people who have natural leadership abilities?
- Given the changes in our lifestyles today what new forms of lay apostolate are needed to meet the needs of a 21st Century Church?
- What can be done to make accessible the depth of talent, and faith development that now does exist in the professionally employed Church to the wider institutional Church and particularly to those lay apostolates that provide a leadership role at the grass roots of the institutional structure?
- What can be done to take the "gag" off those whom the Church today employs professionally so that their work can become truly effective in the wider Catholic communities?
- It is true that the pleasing, and spectacular growth of the Catholic tertiary education sector has taken up some of the slack but one suspects that the Catholic tertiary education sector largely serves the professionally employed Church rather than the wider Church community. That said, there is also a discussion to be had, if my own suspicion might be proved correct by hard research evidence, that the drift from our elite schools and the natural community leadership sectors is greater than elsewhere. What might be done about that?
- Do the leaders of our Catholic universities, our Catholic education offices, our lay Apostolates such as the Knights, the Catholic Doctors and Catholic Lawyers Associations, the Catholic Women's League, or the leaders in university apostolates have anything intelligent to say about these matters?
I am going to endeavour to assemble a range of commentators from across the institution who might offer perspectives on some of these questions. If any of our present commentators would like to take up this theme in their own commentaries in the coming weeks I am sure our readers will value your perspectives.
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