The Catholic Community in the Australian Religious Landscape

The Australian religious landscape has constantly changed over the centuries. Prior to 1788, an Aboriginal spirituality, expressed in myth, ritual and way of life, prevailed. Most of Australia’s religious groups trace their origins to Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe, with Catholics and Protestants being the main religious groups in the early years of European settlement. Over the years however, large surges in the immigration of people especially from non-English speaking countries, have led to an increase in non-Christian religious groups, and a greater diversity of religious affiliations than in previous times. Added to these changes is a rejection of religion by a large and growing number of Australians. Research findings from the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes suggest that for almost half of Australians, religion or spirituality is so weak that it is not present at all. 

The demographical profile of the Catholic community in Australia is increasingly multicultural with 23.6 per cent of the Australian Catholic population born overseas. An additional 22 per cent are second generation immigrants. While the Catholic population continues to increase, vocations to religious life (and even marriage) are on the decline. The number of Catholic religious in Australia shows a downward trend. In 2009 there were 8,422 Catholic religious in Australia as compared to 17,029 in 1976. The median age of Catholic religious was 73 as compared to 46 in 2006, confirming a rapidly aging profile. While these figures do not include diocesan clergy, Australia still has a relatively older religious community ministering to a younger Catholic population.

CATHOLIC PARISHES: There are currently 1,364 Catholic parishes operating in twenty-eight dioceses based on territorial divisions, five dioceses of Eastern Catholic churches and three other non-geographical dioceses which include the Military Ordinariate for the Armed Services of Australia, the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross and the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei.

Australian parishes and dioceses are very diverse in terms of their location, size and population demographics. The average number of Catholics per parish doubled between 1947 and 2006, 2006, from 1,735 to 3,729. Nevertheless, this population is unevenly spread across the country resulting in some very large parishes and other very small ones. Burleigh Heads in the Archdiocese of Brisbane is the largest parish, with over 32,000 Catholics. In comparison the smallest mainland parish of Jugiong in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn has only 86 Catholics. The percentage of the Catholic population in each parish in comparison to the total population of the area also varies greatly. In parishes such as Bathurst Island and Santa Teresa in the Diocese of Darwin, both of which are Aboriginal communities, Catholics make up 86 to 89 per cent of the population, while a few parishes in the dioceses of Geraldton, Darwin, and Cairns exist in communities that are under 10 per cent Catholic

Recent research has shown that vibrant parishes are those that are inclusive and welcoming, with committed parishioners, active parish groups and a strong sense of belonging and community. Rural parishes face greater challenges due to the declining number of priests and lay leaders for ministry, shrinking Catholic populations and a lack of adequate resources to support Mass and other parish ministries.  Despite this, some rural parishes continue to excel through innovative leadership structures and parish events, dynamic youth activities, strong community engagement and adaptability, planning and vision.

Parishioners might be interested to read more of this report on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ website: www.catholic.org.au