Stranded Under the Southern Cross: News from a Shrinking Church
This is a story about a Church that got smaller, apparently overnight. In some places, it got so small that the people in it really started to feel lonely.
I’m a Catholic who lives in Australia. Most of you aren’t even aware that there is a Catholic Church in Australia, but there is. And it has some interesting tales to tell. Think of us as a petri dish – a microcosm of what went wrong, and what happens when you don’t fix problems in your Church. I think churchgoing Catholics in Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa will shake their heads and tell me I’ve got it much better than them. And they may be right.
Australia was founded as a prison, and its original Catholic population was mostly Irish convicts. Once we became a nation of our own (no revolution, just an act of British Parliament in 1901), we really clawed our way up the social ladder.
We educated our bright sparks via low-cost parochial schools staffed by teaching orders. We formed our own trade unions and gradually infiltrated the public service and the professions. We bought big chunks of land cheaply and invested in bricks and mortar. We successfully negotiated for government funding for Catholic schools in the 1960s.
We did all of this without losing much of our faith, or our culture. We did the same thing, really, as you. And then we went through the same mess that you did – and largely thanks to you.
In the 1970s, my apparently sane and sound parish priest was sent to the United States on a formation course. When he came back, he ran amok. He and dozens of others across the country wrecked sanctuaries, threw out statues, liturgically experimented, and – in his case – had subsequent nervous breakdowns. He didn’t leave to get married, but plenty of others did.
The US Church became the beacon of all that was groovy, and our local church leadership lapped it up. We sang the drivel hymns churned out by the St Louis Jesuits and Marty Haugen. Humanae Vitae was greeted with howls of derision. Very few of our bishops lifted a finger to support St Paul VI either in public or in private, and everyone was happy.
Except that everyone wasn’t. The data on Mass attendance in Australia historically is poor, and still is a bit dubious, but it seems to have fallen from around 75% in the 1950s to around 10% nationally today. It’s been a steady dying-off of the pre-conciliar generation, who were very faithful to Sunday Mass, and the shrinking family sizes of their children and grandchildren.
Meanwhile, we acquired a national bishops conference – and like yours, it was quickly colonised by feminist nuns and church bureaucrats and began to issue social justice statements and pretty much nothing else.
Clergy sexual abuse was as rife here as everywhere else and caused by the same unholy alliances. It took just as long to expose it, and it was exposed by victims and the secular media. Neither clergy nor lay people working for the Church did much to help; the covering-up industry was an equal opportunity employer.
The clergy sexual abuse scandals in Australia – painfully documented by lay action group Broken Rites for decades and exposed in a national Royal Commission of Inquiry – lost the Church most of its remaining public reputation. The full force of both government-funded and private secular media has now turned on the Church in Australia. But that’s just the public reputation – what most people didn’t realise was that the Church in Australia was already eviscerated.
Australia is a tiny country. It looks big on a map, but our population is not much bigger than that of greater Los Angeles or greater New York (it’s nearly 26 million). The country is divided into six states, and each state contains a handful of Catholic dioceses. We have a big nominal Catholic population of around 5 million, but most of them never darken a church door. The Catholic Church in Australia today consists of around 600,000 churchgoing Catholics. That’s around the population of Louisville, Kentucky.
I tend to see the Church in Australia as consisting of the ‘real Church’ and an unpleasant outer structure that I call The Carapace. The Carapace is like The Borg in Star Trek, if it helps. It attaches itself to the real Church and feeds off it. Its principal purpose is to employ people, and its mission is to protect the Church’s assets at all costs. No dioceses in Australia have transparent accounts, but a 2018 piece of investigative journalism estimated the net worth of the Church in Australia at AU$30 billion (US$23 billion – around the GDP of Namibia, which has a population of 2.5 million people).
Elements of The Carapace are in every diocesan chancery, and in the Catholic media. It’s in the diocesan Catholic Office for Fashionable Causes with its well-paid director and SUV (looking at the car park outside the chancery is always enlightening). It’s in the Catholic youth ministries, which employ the few remaining churchgoing Catholics under the age of 30 before they graduate to adult sections of The Carapace. It’s in the elderly enclaves of religious who gave up accepting vocations a long time ago and have settled into a comfortable (and habit-less) old age with substantial patrimonies and ready access to private Catholic health care.
What epitomises The Carapace for me is the Catholic education system. In a little place like Catholic Australia, pretty much everyone’s brother-in-law is currently employed in it, and it’s funded very generously by both state and federal governments.
Without this funding, the entire system – which employs around 100,000 brothers-in-law – would collapse. This means that no one can criticise the Catholic education system in the Catholic media. This is partly because the Catholic media in Australia survives by selling advertising space to Catholic schools. But it’s also because it’s the goose that lays the golden eggs.
In recent years, secular politicians have asked questions about these very generous Catholic education subsidies. Whenever they do, there’s always an uproar from the middle classes. None of them go to Mass, but they love having cheap subsidised private education for their children. The only reason funding has not been cut yet is that the State governments can’t provide enough schools to absorb all the children who would need places if the Catholic school system had to close.
Depending on how you look at it, Catholic education in Australia has either been a monumental success (bursting schools and tons of money) or a crashing failure (the rate of Mass attendance among young people is the lowest in Australia, at around 5%). If its purpose was to transmit the Catholic faith and equip children to live as faithful Catholics in an aggressively secular world, then a cost-benefit analysis would shut the whole thing down immediately.
It also gives the State a boot to place firmly on the throat of the Church in Australia. Our bishops have a habit of rolling over very promptly to government orders, partly because they live in terror of even more lawsuits, but also because they know that the secular government holds the educational purse strings.
So where’s the real Church? I think of it as a river, alive and well and flowing steadily underneath the frozen Carapace. It’s spread across the country and it’s largely invisible to outsiders, but its basic structure is that of the early Church: a good and diligent priest with a faithful flock who trusts him, and who trust each other. Our parish structures have become very elastic; those who want to stay faithful drive considerable distances to find these priests. These priests are not always on good terms with their local bishop, and they tend to be unpopular with The Carapace.
For such a tiny Church, we’re now very top-heavy. We have an impressive 28 dioceses and seven eparchies and ordinariates. There’s currently 72 bishops or equivalent in Australia, of whom 29 are emeritus bishops. That’s one bishop for every 8,000 churchgoing Catholics. But while we are rich in bishops, most of them do not exactly cast fire on the earth. We have a few – you can count them on the fingers of one hand – who are not afraid of appearing authentically Catholic in public. Some are Catholic in private but are silent in public because they’re intimidated by The Carapace. Some have been absorbed by The Carapace; the occasional arm or leg still moves freely, but the mind is completely subsumed.
Our local priestly and religious vocations are very thin on the ground. It takes a family to raise a future priest or religious sister, and most Catholic families in Australia have no intention of doing this. As with so many other things in the Australian economy, they’re cheaper to import from overseas, and sometimes the overseas product is better than what we could make locally. We import many priests from developing countries, and I have some issues of conscience about this. I have no problem with a priest from anywhere in the world saying Mass for me; I am just aware that in their countries of origin, they have massive churchgoing Catholic populations and not nearly enough clergy of their own.
There are some younger religious communities that seem to be doing okay. We have some strictly enclosed Carmelite communities with good reputations, and outposts of communities like the Religious Sisters of Mercy. The courageous Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, founded a local women’s religious order – the Sisters of the Immaculata – to re-evangelise and revitalise parishes in his tiny Archdiocese, so far to excellent effect. We have a local Oratory of St Philip Neri in formation, and a traditional Benedictine community from France has settled here too.
We have Extraordinary Form communities in Australia in the larger population centres, and people who oscillate between them and the saner Novus Ordo parishes (there are just over 60 Latin Mass venues in the entire country). The traditional communities are substantially aged under 50, and the families are noticeably larger. Most of them – like all Catholics who really believe – have been wounded by post-conciliar church warfare. Many have come from all sorts of unhappy situations and are seeking peace and healing. However, the only two people I’ve met who believe the world is flat – both men well into middle age with a range of other issues – I met in a Novus Ordo parish.
I am not optimistic about the future of the Church in Australia. We have no laws protecting religious liberty, and no constitutional guarantees of free speech and free assembly. We have no Roe v Wade; abortion is legal in all Australian states, as is same sex marriage. We have no Bill of Rights. All the recent proposed Bills of Rights would have limited Australians’ rights considerably, so it’s probably a good thing we don’t have one.
State governments in Australia have already passed laws that will punish clergy for not breaking the seal of the confessional. Some local bishops have bravely spoken out against this. But it’s like lighting a candle in a hurricane. We are on the run now, and our governments know it, and they can smell blood.
We’re also facing a demographic sinkhole. We’ve got around 3,000 or so priests, both diocesan and religious. It works out to around 1 priest per 180 churchgoing Catholics, which wouldn’t cause any diocesan priest to crack a sweat. But I did some crude data modelling and worked out that if death rates remain the same for the over 60s, we’ll be down to a quarter of a million churchgoing Catholics by 2050. We don’t have a priest shortage; we’re rapidly developing a laity shortage.
We’ve been trying to hold a national Plenary Council, and this process nicely exemplifies the war between a lunatic fringe of ageing liberals and the people who want their Catholic patrimony back. But this time the endless consultations, carefully curated working groups, and sanitising of input haven’t quite managed to wash out the Catholicism that still exists at grassroots levels.
I think the Plenary Council is too little, too late. I don’t want to limit the actions of the Almighty, but we’re on a trajectory now that will take a miracle to get us off it. We chose this trajectory through our sin and weakness, tolerating our bad bishops and clergy, covering up our terrible abuses, gobbling down an increasing diet of government money, and allowing our parishes to turn into liturgical silos.
What might change us is real persecution. At the moment it’s like the phoney war in Britain in 1939-40: we’re tensing ourselves for it, but nothing seems to be happening, and the sky is still blue (as it so often is in this beautiful country). However, I think it’s coming. Like the clowns, perhaps it’s already here.
The Carapace can breathe easy: the Catholic schools won’t be touched. We are approaching a tipping point in these schools where non-Catholic students will soon outnumber nominal Catholics, and most Catholic schools are already indistinguishable from other private schools. Their Catholic identity has largely been reduced to the names of buildings, and they pose no threat to the secular status quo.
Those who will be persecuted are agencies or religious orders that won’t conform to legislation that controls who they can and can’t employ. Any Catholic agency which resists anti-discrimination legislation like this will be shut down. It’s long odds whether their local bishop or diocese will support them. The Carapace is notoriously compliant; resistance is futile.
I think priests will be targeted in the confessional via entrapment and will then be tried and imprisoned for not breaking the seal. Those priests who signed up to serve The Carapace – a lot of smiling, being nice, and not rocking the boat – will continue to do so. Those who choose to be actual Catholic priests will fare less well. Being able to weather unpopularity and hatred has already become a real asset for a faithful priest or seminarian in Australia.
In every age and every country, the Catholic tide flows in and out. Right now, our tide is flowing out. I must accept that the Church to which I belong is now a shrinking minority in Australia, and likely to become an increasingly persecuted one. It’s allowed itself to become rich in assets and weak in numbers and is ripe for plundering.
My survival tips for those feeling increasingly stranded and lonely in tiny local Churches?
- Pray. A regular prayer life, and receiving as many sacraments as you can, will not only keep the Church alive in your heart and home, but will also make all my other survival tips listed below more achievable. The Divine Office plugs you directly into the Church like mains electricity, and all you need to recite it daily is a cheap app.
- Find good priests and love them courageously. Good priests need money, sound advice, and practical help. Set them free to do the priesting they were ordained for. Some of them need a safe place to land on their off days; if they choose you, be that safe place. Protect them with your prayers but also with due warnings; they need both. Know their limits: they are not a 24-hour crisis line, and they cannot solve all your family’s problems. Collect them like you collect the names of excellent and inexpensive restaurants that no one else knows about. Sometimes I can stave off panic attacks by simply going through the list of good priests I know in my head; I count them like sheep.
- Embrace your Catholic weird and live it fearlessly. It signals confidence and hope to other faithful and weird Catholics, and there’s strength in numbers, even in tiny ones. I would like to work out the algorithm for Martyr’s Law: the smaller a local Church gets, the weirder it gets, because only the weird people stay attached when there’s no earthly reason to do so.
- Light a candle rather than cursing the darkness: do what little you can locally to build up the Body of Christ. It might be hosting a prayer group, giving a talk, writing an article, doing some Adoration, lending a book, having a conversation, sharing a website. Like Mother Teresa said, you don’t have to be successful – you just have to be faithful.
- Evangelise when the opportunities arise. Some non-practising Catholics are open to learning more about their faith – at least give them the opportunity to reject it in its fullness, rather than the cartoon version they absorbed at school. Some Evangelicals are reading their way into the Church; answer their questions honestly.
- Befriend your fellow Catholics if you can. Be patient with their eccentricities if you can’t. This is a field hospital in the middle of a war zone, not an exclusive country club lounge. Use social media wisely to stay connected with those who might be drifting, but don’t break the crushed reeds. You’re not going to agree on politics or vaccination or pretty much anything outside of the Catholic faith, and that’s okay.
Please pray for us. It’s strange to feel oneself slipping from the safe and affluent Western world into the realm of the persecuted Church. It’s strange to have grown up surrounded by Catholics, and now to feel very exposed because they’ve all melted away. Above all, pray that I’m wrong about all this, or even some of it.
Dr Philippa Martyr is an academic, researcher, and writer who lives in Perth, Western Australia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org