02 December 2006
The ACBC study into Catholics who have stopped going to Mass...
The Australian Catholic Bishops yesterday released the long-awaited Summary Report of a two-year qualitative study into the reasoning and thinking of Catholics who have stopped going to Mass. This study provides valuable qualitative research into the substantial volume of quantitative research that has now been undertaken into the drift away from participation in the Sacramental life of the Church. The full report is yet to be published but the summary published yesterday now gives a broad overview as to why the study was commissioned, who was involved, what the study was designed to elicit, a broad overview of the sample of the population chosen for the intensive interviews, and, most importantly of all, the findings of the research.
One can almost hear the scepticism already from some sectors of the Church that the sample population of 41 people was too small. The report authors though explain in considerable detail how this qualitative research fits with the now vast amount of quantitative research that has been undertaken both within Australia and overseas into the drift away from participation. They also explain how this research fits with other qualitative studies that have been undertaken in other countries and how this might enable the institution to gain a better understanding of the forces at work in society which help us understand why the Sacramental life of the Church has lost its appeal for so many.
The report's opening paragraph observes...
For quite some years now, Catholics have been drifting away from active parish involvement, so that by 2001 the percentage of the Catholic population at Mass on a typical weekend had fallen to 15.3 per cent. Anecdotal reports suggest that in recent years this drift has been noticeable even among people who were regular Mass attenders and active parishioners for many years of their adult lives.
The second paragraph explains...
This research aims to meet the desire of the Catholic bishops of Australia to know more about the reasons why people are ceasing to attend Mass so that action can be taken to stem the flow or reach out to those who have gone.
I'll leave you to read the Summary Report for yourself. I don't believe the results of this research are at all surprising. As a writer and journalist I've been involved in discussions with many people over many years like those interviewed for this study.
The more important questions to be addressed...
The more important questions to be addressed now are:
The single greatest issue that needs to be addressed...
The one single area of this report — which has been compiled by the study leader and principal investigator, Bob Dixon — that I would question is paragraph 5 of the supplementary findings:
5. Many participants, but by no means all, displayed a very poor knowledge of the Catholic faith. When asked whether they agreed with the Catholic position on a particular issue, many said they did not know what the Catholic position was. Others expressed disagreement with specific Church teachings despite having only a very hazy idea of what those teachings entailed. Nuances in Catholic thought — for example, the distinction between condemnation of homosexual acts and compassion for the homosexual person — were often completely missed.
In many respects I do believe there is much ignorance out in the general community about Catholic teachings. One comes across this ignorance quite often in places such as open discussion boards even from individuals who profess to be exceedingly passionate and committed about their faith. It is no surprise therefore to observe that people who are more removed from the Church should be quite ignorant of, for example, the contents of the more than 2,800 paragraphs in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Where I would disagree with Mr Dixon though is that there is actually not much "ignorance" out there of what the Church teaches on matters of sexual morality and mores. As you can see above, he cites the instance of attitudes towards homosexuality. Most people, even very distanced from the institution do know very well everything the Church has to say about what we are allowed and not allowed to do with our genital organs. I disagree specifically with Mr Dixon that most people are unable to work out of the "subtlety" of the Church position on homosexuality. The greatest "ignorance" there I find in the conservative sectors. Others may feign ignorance but question them further and they know the subtlely. THEY SIMPLY DISAGREE WITH IT! What the institution does not seem to be able to get its head around is that these are the issues where the broader population seems to be getting a very different message to what our celibate bishops and cardinals are getting. The bishops and conservative elements can bellow all they like that it is the Eros Foundation and "secular culture" which is seducing people away from "their Truth". Get out in the dining rooms of suburbia and you'll find that while that seduction of secular culture might be a factor for some, it is not the prime factor for the educated and opinion leader sectors of the population. That stuff does appeal to the insecure 5% of the Catholic population. The vast, vast majority of intelligent mature Catholics I speak to on these issues have come to the honest conclusion that God is saying a different thing to humanity than what the bishops think God is saying. The sexual morality issues I would contend, even nearly 40 years after Humanae Vitae, continue to be the single greatest issue that triggers a sense of irrelevance and eventually dropping out of participation. The hypocrisy over sexual morality and celibacy uncovered by the sexual abuse scandals has only made the sitution all the worse.
Even John Paul II acknowledged that Humanae Vitae was a "pastoral and catechetical failure". I submit his own endeavours to correct that failure were no better and conservatives like his biographer and fan, George Weigel, are whistling in the wind if they believe there is going to be some great awakening to the wisdom of JPII some decades or generations down the track.
As I have argued at length in the CathNews forum and here, the Church has to get "back to torrs" on the entire gamut of human sexuality and how we express it. I honestly believe such a re-examination WILL NOT result in wholesale "liberalisation" or "libertarianism" — there is actually much enormous Truth and Wisdom in the existing teachings. I do believe such a re-examination though will re-seat it: (a) within a far more pastorally sensitive and understable context, and (b), within a better overall context of the others areas of morality covered in the other nine commandments about which, truly, to use Mr Dixon's words, there is "a very poor knowledge of the Catholic faith".
Two-fold major challenge...
The major challenge I believe the institution faces is two-fold. One is this inordinate fear that seems to grip the institutional leaders about "upsetting" the insecure and childish elements in their flock. They literally seem to almost wet themselves with worry about this element of the population and yet they couldn't give a damn for the 84.7% who have left. All the resources of the institution are constantly, constantly channelled into appeasing, reassuring, and rubbing the little tum-tums of that element of the population. The bishops and cardinals have to learn to accept that they either have to educate that sector of the population and/or they have to accept that some of them will not be able to keep up and might go into schism. The judgment you gentlemen have to make is this: is that potential schism greater than the schism you are already responsible for where 85% have vamoosed? That's the question we will all face when our moment of ultimate accountability arrives. Unlike the defendants at Nuremberg, none of us are going to be able to try and plead, "but I was only following orders" or "I didn't think these things through for myself".
The second major impediment standing in the way of affecting real change that will redress the drift which has been articulated by this report is what I describe as the "cultural intertia" of the institution. This report articulates that the people who have left feel the Church doesn't have anything to say to them any longer. I've been saying that for years now. Priests are afraid to even tackle the "real issues" that ordinary people want tackled in their homilies. Why? Because the priests live in perpetual fear of being dobbed into Rome or to their bishop. It has become an artform today for priests and bishops to utter many words and to very skillfully make it look as though they are doing productive work in doing so but they are actually being very, very careful to avoid all the sorts of issues that they think might upset not so much His Holiness but this vast army of "thought police" today who believe they know what His Holiness thinks ever better than His Holiness does. (If you want me to start citing chapter and verse of instances where I have observed these behaviours I would be very happy to do so.) In Australia in the last few days we have seen yet another instance where even a bishop has been "wacked into place" by the "thought police". You only have to do that to one or two individuals, you only have to discipline one Michael Morwood or drive one Paul Collins out of the priesthood to cause this cultural cowardice on the part of an entire nation of priests and bishops.
From the Pope down, our bishops and cardinals have to start getting their act together. We are not playing some game of "pleasing our mummies here" — or Sharon on the CathNews discussion board! The question we are all going to be asked when the ultimate accountability comes is "what did you do to bring the good news to ALL people?" Following Jesus Christ is not some game of social conformism, let's-be-nice-to-one-another unctiousness. It is a life-long process of learning the "Way" of thinking and acting as Christ would do if he were to be the one facing the moral dilemmas and life challenges we are called upon to face. This is not some kindergarten game of charades or dress-ups to please our long-dead mothers or our own egos. It is not some game of ring-a-ring-a-rosie, we're all happy little vegemites!
A personal criticism...
Let me end with a personal criticism. In 1994 I made a personal commitment to dedicating my life to communicating the "Good News". I have watched, and can cite chapter and verse over and over and over again the total gutlessness of people in positions of authority to actually undertake the hard work of communicating the Good News. The Catholica Australia endeavour is dedicated to "reaching out" to that sector of the population which this report addresses. So far, since we started at the beginning of July, it has meant a personal investment of over $30,000 of my scant personal wealth. There has been a similar investment of time on the part of the many writers who contribute to this endeavour if they were able to be paid at the "going rate" for articles published in Eureka Street or OnLine Catholics of $200 per article. Some three months ago I sent a personal letter and background briefing to the 40+ active bishops in Australia explaining what Catholica Australia is seeking to do and how it intends to go about achieving its objective. My letter also requested their "moral" support. The grand total of the responses has been three letters. It is not good enough gentlemen. I get more support out of Rome than I get from all of yourselves collectively. What are you going to do about it? I cite that as another instance of the "silence" of our ecclesial and spiritual leaders. You are afraid, gentlemen, aren't you of addressing the hard issues that the people in this survey have said they want addressed? Who are you afraid of?
Let me cite a second instance: your principal communications' initiative into new media in Australia is today quite lavishly funded — and I am thankful for some of the work that I have derived from that source even though I estimate that my average rate of pay, excluding all the voluntary work I have done, ends up at around $5 per hour. That now vast organisation claims today though that "it is not a publisher — it has no 'opinions' of its own". You cannot proclaim the Gospel unless one has opinions to proclaim and one is a publisher. The reason, gentlemen, your major electronic news source is not a publisher in its own right, is because of the institutional culture of "silence" — you are scared to death of speaking "cor ad cor loquitor — heart speaks to heart" to quote that great personal motto of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Catholica Australia should be an initiative that should have continued where it began — on the CathNews discussion board. It does not exist there today because, like the 85% who have already departed the institutional Church, it was driven out of the CathNews discussion forum by your silence and total indifference and this enormous fear everyone has of the conservative and psychologically insecure faction in our Church. Your claims of standing for unity in the Church are a sham when you constantly, constantly cave into the minority 5% element of the population and those in your own ranks who believe they can re-evangelise the world via that element in the population. History tells us that that element has controlled the communications' agenda of the Church almost continuously throughout the 20th Century and the 15.3% figure you lament today is the net result of those failed communication policies. With the possible exception of the brave few like Bishop Pat Power, you stand by and do nothing to assist initiatives that are designed to reach out to the 85% who have left. The proof is there in the total gutlessness to even offer a one-line email of encouragement to all the people who stand behind the Catholica Australia initiative. What are you going to do cheer when Grahame Fallon tries to make a fool of himself by quoting this "juicy morsel" of a statistic out of context yet again?
Gentlemen, the report you have commissioned is brave, and long overdue. Give it some teeth. There is no reason whatsoever why Australia should not become a beacon in the Western world for bringing the light of Jesus Christ into the hearts of all people so that it glows afresh. Your own report, and many others, demonstrates that there is great "spiritual hunger" out in our community. It is your responsibility to be satisfying that hunger. You will not do so by this constant pandering to the 5% who want to take our Church down to remnant status. Your pleas about standing up for "eternal truth" are bunkum and you all know it in your hearts. You are basically protecting the institution from itself not standing up for truth. If you put all your energy into placating and appeasing the insecure and fundamentalist elements in your flock you do the Church a great disservice, our nation a great disservice, and eventually there will be a day of accountability for what has been allowed to transpire over the last 100 years.
The Summary Report can be found at: www.acbc.catholic.org.au/documents/20061201472.pdf
We welcome comments in the forum from members, or as Letters to the Editor from Catholica subscribers, expressing your views on this commentary.