There has been a lot of talk about the numbers who have signed the current petition to the Australian bishops. Much of it has been on the CathNews site where, I think, they've probably spent more time discussing the numbers signing the petition than the issues raised by it.
To be honest, I'm not sure that either of these percentages means a great deal.
Petitioners as a percentage of all Catholics…
Of the total number who identify as Catholics in the Australian census, we know that 85% or so do not participate actively in the sacramental life of the church, in terms of coming regularly to mass. Now, some of the 85% may be alienated because they find the church too traditional or restrictive; some because they find the church too progressive. But I suspect most don't come because they're simply not engaged, or they don't regard the issues addressed by Catholicism as being of interest or of importance to them. And this leads me to two conclusions:
First, if they do have views on the shortage of clergy, or favour or oppose married clergy, these may not be very strongly-held views. Why should you care greatly about these issues if you don't see much value or significance in priesthood to begin with?
Secondly, the bulk of the 85% are probably unaware that the petition exists at all. They don't read websites or magazines that talk about it, or move in circles where it might be discussed, and it hasn't had much coverage in the mainstream media. And, if they don't know about the petition, I don't think we can draw any inference about their views, one way or the other, from the fact that they haven't signed it.
Petitioners as a percentage of practicing Catholics…
There's a better case to be made for measuring the number of signatures against the 15% or so of Catholics who do participate regularly. They are at least likely to be aware of these issues, to have considered them already, and to have come to some conclusions on them. So a lot of them do actually have an opinion to express, and it may be a strongly-held one.
But I still suspect that this is not a very meaningful comparison. Even among regular attenders, there are large numbers who would be unaware that the petition exists. I'm an active Catholic; I go regularly to Mass in my parish, and I participate in a couple of parish ministries which brings me into contact with other equally active parishioners. But I've not heard any mention of the petition in my parish, from the priest or from other parishioners. I suppose that many of my fellow-parishioners are not aware of it, and I imagine that the experience of my parish is typical.
So, again, we can't make assumptions about even practising Catholics who haven't signed the petition. They may support the ideas it expresses, or they may not. Hence telling us that 1.6% of them (or whatever) have signed the petition isn't telling us very much.
Is there a meaningful comparison?
A more meaningful comparison would be between:
Unfortunately, this is not an easy comparison to make, because it is hard to know to whose attention the petition has come.
I suggest there are three main avenues by which the petition will have come to people's attention.
I think that the bulk of the people who have considered the petition will have been reached through one of these three avenues. And I don't know, but my guess is that the 10,000 who have signed is a fair proportion of the number that will have been reached in this way — certainly higher than 1.6%.
Of course, these sectors of the church are not typical of the Catholic population at large. At least one sector — the "like-minded groups and networks" — is almost certainly more liberal than the church at large. So, even if the percentage take-up could be identified, it would be a mistake to extrapolate that percentage and apply it to the church at large.
On the other hand, the "like-minded groups and networks" consist of people who are interested in the faith and who take it very seriously. They are likely to include people who form and influence the opinions of others. Likewise, the sector reached through CathNews and similar channels I expect consists to a disproportionate extent of people who are professionally involved with the church — clerics, religious, people working in the church's educational or social ministries. Again, they include many opinion formers, and many who have influence in the church precisely because of their commitment to it.
So, while the Catholics who have considered the petition are not typical of Catholics as a whole, they are likely to be more influential than Catholics as a whole. They include thinkers and leaders and opinion formers, and they are people whom the bishops would be very foolish to dismiss as irrelevant.
One more point should be noted. I've read that politicians generally reckon that every person who writes a letter, or signs a petition, about a particular view or concern typically represents between twenty and forty other people who share that view or concern, but haven't communicated it. It would be a big mistake to think that, if 12,000 Catholics have signed this petition, there are only 12,000 Catholics who share the views expressed in this petition. There are certainly many more.
Measuring against other internet petitions…
There is another way to judge the success of this petition, which is to compare it with the take-up of other internet-based petitions in Australia. I did a bit of digging around and. as far as I can see, 12,000 is a very respectable figure. For example:
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of these specific issues, it has to be acknowledged that they are all matters of current political controversy, they have all received considerable coverage in the mainstream media, and they are issues on which many Australians have very strong views. And yet the Catholic petition, of interest only to Catholics and largely ignored by the mainstream media, has comfortably outstripped them all.
Obviously there is more that goes into the success of any petition than simply the popularity of the ideas expressed. There is effective organisation and communication, for one thing. Many internet petitions on worthy or popular causes expire with a handful of signatures (petition calling on John Howard to retire: 66 signatures) because nobody has promoted them.
But promotion only gets you so far. For an Australian based petition, it looks as though anything above 5,000 signatures is a pretty impressive result. To get beyond that requires good promotion and a wide appeal. For a petition which appeals only to Catholic Australians, 12,000 looks to me like a figure to take notice of.
Measuring against the promoters' expectations…
Finally, there is one further test of the success of the petition; how does the number of signatures stack up against the expectations (or hopes) of the organizers?
Let me say at once that I have no idea what their expectations or hopes were, or even whether they started out with a number of signatures in mind which they would regard as a good outcome, or a poor outcome.
In terms of actually achieving the objectives of the petition, the best possible outcome is not necessarily the largest possible number of signatures. This seems slightly surprising, but I think it is one of the lessons to be learned from the experience of the We Are Church movement.
We Are Church grew out of a petition organised in Austria in 1995. The petition called for (among other things):
In the space of about three weeks, the petition gathered five hundred thousand signatures in Austria. It was then launched in Germany, Italy and a number of other countries, eventually collecting about 2.5 million signatures.
The We Are Church movement was founded on the back of this wave of support.
From such apparently promising beginnings, however, the movement has achieved little in concrete terms. It is seen as a radical anticlerical "opposition" movement, and relationships between it and the "official" church are nearly always portrayed in confrontational terms. This makes any kind of co-operative or collaborative approach to questions difficult to pursue. Precisely because of its radical popularity, it is very difficult for the "official" church to be seen to "concede" any "victory" to We Are Church.
I think the organizers of the Australian petition have recognised this problem, and have sought to avoid it. The petition is not framed in terms of the rights of individual Catholics, but the needs of the Catholic community. It does not challenge church teaching on any matter of doctrine. The petition does not seek to suggest or imply that the various ideas it advocates should be adopted simply because they are popular — a notion that it would be very difficult for the "official" church to accept.
From this point of view, gathering half-a-million signatures would be positively unhelpful. All that the petition needs to succeed in its objectives is to demonstrate that these ideas are important enough to, and are taken seriously enough by, a sufficient number of Catholics, that the church cannot ignore them, but needs to engage with them. Massive support for the petition would obscure this, and would turn the exercise into a populist challenge to the "official" church, focussing attention on the question of democracy in the church, and so distracting it from the question of eucharistic ministry, and ministry more generally, which is actually what the petition is actually concerned with.
In my view, expressing the number of petitioners as a percentage of either the number of self-identified Catholics, or the number of regularly practising Catholics, is fairly meaningless.
A more meaningful comparison, between the numbers who have considered the petition and the numbers who have signed it, is hard to make, but would certainly show a higher percentage. However that percentage, even if it could be identified, could not be extrapolated to the church at large.
But the final point is that, in absolute terms, 10,000* Catholics is a lot. You can bet your bottom dollar that if a politician received a petition with 10,000 signatures, they would take that very, very seriously as an indicator of a major concern about which people felt strongly, and which needed to be addressed. If the Australian bishops do not regard this petition in at least that light, they are deluding themselves.
*The total number of signatures collected as at the time of publication of this article is in fact 12,298.
What are your thoughts on this commentary? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.