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Is this the end of Catholicism in Australia?

Things are anything but peaceful in the Australian Catholic Church. In February, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed a remarkable 1880 perpetrators during a 60-year period. In June, Cardinal George Pell was also charged with historical sexual assault offences and his case is currently before the courts.

Recent Census data shows a decline in those identifying as Catholic, but this mightn’t exclusively be linked to sexual abuse. Regardless, as those who’ve identified with the faith become disenchanted, many are questioning their future with the institution.

Keeping the faith

Deakin University Associate Professor Andrew Singleton is an expert in religion, culture and society in Australia. He believes that the Royal Commission will offer a series of critical findings that will highlight the institutional factors that have led to the widespread abuse of children.

‘I think it’s already clear from the initial reporting and the evidence presented that the Catholic Church, alongside other institutions, did a manifestly inadequate job of dealing with the abuse,’ he says.

Assoc. Prof. Singleton believes that the findings will help to reform processes of the church. ‘It has already prompted widespread soul-searching amongst both the Catholic clergy and laity. It’s also led to a lot of anger, directed towards the church, from both outsiders and also among laity,’ he points out.

However, he adds that even these revelations won’t necessarily lead to a significant reduction in attendance at mass or affiliation with the church. ‘The things that contribute to attendance and affiliation are more complex,’ Assoc. Prof Singleton suggests.

'I think it's already clear from the initial reporting and the evidence presented that the Catholic Church, alongside other institutions, did a manifestly inadequate job of dealing with the abuse.'

Associate Professor Andrew Singleton,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Few in the pews

For more than a decade the number of people identifying as Catholic has been in decline, and from 2011 to 2016, the number of people identifying as atheist rose by a staggering 45 per cent. ‘We are seeing a decline, but this is true of mainline Protestant denominations as well. Attendances at mass have been in decline for a long time,’ Assoc. Prof. Singleton says.

While he believes that some Catholics have turned away from the religion in light of the sexual abuse findings, others will remain loyal and want to be part of the push for reforms.

Patterns in decline are the result of wider societal factors. For example, we no longer see churches as a central part of our communities.

‘People struggle with the everyday concept of belief. This is particularly true of young people, who are the ones who are either turning away from Christian affiliation or not bothering to affiliate with the church at all,’ Assoc. Prof. Singleton suggests.

However, he adds that the evidence presented at the Royal Commission possibly reinforces the decisions of young people who’ve distanced themselves from organised religion. 

Future prayers

An ongoing future for the Catholic Church relies on victims and their families experiencing justice. ‘Justice for the survivors, and openness from the church about its past failings and every effort made to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future,’ Assoc. Prof. Singleton says.

Ultimately he suggests that it is finally time for religious leaders to acknowledge the events and be transparent in their response. The future lies in those at the top of the organisation being proactive about change. ‘I get the impression that Pope Francis is committed to reform. I think many Catholics share that view,’ he concludes.

Interested in the future role of religion in our society? Consider studying a Bachelor of Arts at Deakin University.

 

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Andrew Singleton
Andrew Singleton

Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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