Catholic bishops speak out – but is anyone listening?

With attendance at mass continuing to flag, the Catholic bishops’ influence has waned with it. Shutterstock

As is their custom, the Australian Catholic bishops have issued a statement on the federal election, outlining the issues they see as important. “A Vote For The Voiceless” names 10 issues, from refugees and asylum seekers to the effect on the world’s poor of Australia’s reduced foreign aid budget.

The voices of these “thrown-away people” are in danger of not being heard in “the long and rowdy campaign”, the bishops say, obviously hopeful that their statement will give the people a voice.

But will it? It is unlikely. So far, media reports have ignored their concerns, focusing only on a supposed claim that they have thundered a warning to politicians over same-sex marriage.

The statement did nothing of the kind. It did not even name same-sex marriage. They restricted their comments to a note that “political decisions in the future will undermine further the dignity and uniqueness of marriage as a lifelong union of man and woman”, in the context of their concern that:

… support for marriage and the family does not look a big vote-winner.

Nevertheless, it is telling that that is the issue that grabbed the headlines. It seems the fact the Catholic bishops have issued an election statement at all was not the news it once would have been.

In days now long gone, Catholic parishioners could be relied on to vote as their bishops decreed. Now the bishops’ statement can only catch media attention if something potentially politically explosive can be discerned in it.

The media know the bishops are no longer a voice that commands the attention of their own constituents, let alone the wider community. Like all the churches, they struggle now to be heard at all in the general conversation – a struggle that has only intensified as revelations of clerical sexual abuse have increased.

In particular, the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has cast a glaring spotlight on the failures of the churches in general and the Catholic Church in particular.

The commission has focused sharply on the way bishops ignored the needs of the victims of child sex abuse as they protected the church’s reputation. And that focus was not limited to regional bishops, such as the former bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, but on people at the very top of the church’s hierarchy, such as Cardinal George Pell.

This exposure of the abject failure of compassion and justice predates the commission. It has been growing for 15 years, since the media began revealing the ugly truth of the church’s protection of paedophile clergy.

As a result, numbers of erstwhile faithful Catholics have stopped attending mass. Only about one-eighth of the total 5.4 million Australian Catholics attended regularly, according to the 2011 Census. This is 6% fewer than at the previous census in 2006.

This decline has been happening for decades, and is not necessarily all related to the sex abuse crisis. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests many Catholics are increasingly disillusioned. It would be very surprising if the royal commission evidence did not accelerate that decline.

In Ireland, between 2005 and 2012 – a period that coincided with the devastating evidence of clerical sexual abuse exposed by the Ryan Commission – the number of Irish people describing themselves as religious (that is, for the most part, Catholic) dropped from 69% to 47%. The results of the forthcoming 2016 Census in Australia could be similarly revealing.

Church leaders still valiantly continue issuing press releases on subjects that ought to concern Australians generally, but it is rare indeed for them to gain even token interest. There was some press interest when they called jointly on the federal government not to cut overseas aid in the budget, but clearly their call had no effect.

Politicians are not listening because they know that all the churches are in steep decline and can no longer influence the way people who are even their own constituents will vote, unlike in decades past.

They know that the bishops’ tentative call for the electorate to speak up for “the voiceless” will be largely ignored.

“The voiceless” they have identified – refugees and asylum seekers, Indigenous people, victims of family violence, the needy elderly, the mentally ill, the addicted, the world’s poor, the victims of modern slavery, unborn children and sexual abuse survivors – will only emerge as election deciders if they gain the advocacy of people or groups whose influence politicians fear. That no longer includes the churches.

The Catholic bishops’ “vote for the voiceless” statement is itself destined to be voiceless.

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