What place for the Catholic Church in 21st century Australia?

Our attitudes towards religious institutions - in particular the Catholic Church - has changed as scandal and controversy afflicts the former bastion of faith. AAP/Simon Mossman

As a young girl in the 1960s, I attended a Catholic boarding school. The nuns could be scary. When they walked the wintry and un-illuminated corridors of the convent, their knee-length rosary beads jangled against their ankle-length black habits.

The unfriendly “stomp stomp” of their chunky, black, lace-up shoes contrasted with the angular, white starched coif atop their head. The outer layer of their ensemble, the monastic cloth scapular, also known as the “yoke of Christ”, draped to the floor back and front. Their oft stern faces matched their garb.

These unforgiving medieval garments were in collaboration with, it seems, the Catholic teachings of the time. Among these were a fear of God; an even greater fear of hell; fear of communists; obedience to God and the religious; chaste thoughts (it was obligatory, in bed, to place one’s arms across the chest in the shape of a cross whilst thinking of Our Lady); and unquestioning belief in Catholic doctrine.

Fast forward to 2013 and the ageing and diminishing population of nuns now wears civvies and this once-Catholic girl, along with many thousands of others, no longer believes in God and makes up her own mind about what to think and believe.

As borne out by the statistics, the Catholic Church in Australia, with about 5.5 million members (a quarter of the population) is now a greatly diminished force in society and the reasons for such a decline are multiple.

According to a survey of the Catholic Religious Institutes in Australia, the number of Catholic nuns, brothers and priests (not including diocesan priests) in Australia reduced by 67% in the years between 1966 and 2009.

In 1954, 74% of the Catholic population attended Mass on a weekly basis. This peak in Australia contrasts with about 12% of Catholics attending Mass periodically (not weekly) in 2011 - despite an increase in the number of Catholics.

The current median age of Catholic religious in Australia is 73 years and their death is vastly outstripping new members of the religion.

Although many Catholics retain a faith and belief in God, they no longer support the institutional church. Others have lost faith in a god and the institution and have become people of “no religion”.

Many Catholic doctrines no longer fit a modern western and increasing secular society. Sex, contraception, gender, homosexuality, male power, contentious wealth and the recent emergence of the sex abuse crisis are critical factors bringing about the great exodus of the clergy and the faithful from the antediluvian church.

Let’s take the law of celibacy. More a discipline than a doctrine, celibacy has a tortuous and fiery history. According to the testimony of ex-priest Phil O’Donnell at the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into in institutional responses to child sex abuse, many priests, required to be celibate, are sexually active. They cope with this internal dilemma by compartmentalising their lives – the public life of celibate priest and the private, sexually active life. Because celibacy can be “a millstone” around the cleric’s neck, the hierarchy, including Rome, will “tolerate” the two states, according to O’Donnell.

Rome may well tolerate such duplicity, but the clergy is increasingly opting out and would-be clerics are simply not opting in.

Another witness at the inquiry talked about the once-accepted notion (or perhaps it still exists for some) that male clergy having sex with other men or with children was not real sex. Therefore, it could be countenanced.

Such glaring hypocrisy is compounded by the church forbidding its faithful from engaging in sex before marriage, contraception within marriage (other than abstinence), masturbation and same-sex sex, let alone same-sex marriage.

Another reason for the diminution of the Catholic Church relates to gender - a dirty word for the all-male Catholic hierarchy. Women cannot be priests. This medieval and rigidly held dogma is an untouchable within the Vatican, and the longer they safeguard it, the more the religious and the faithful will depart. A no-brainer.

Cardinal George Pell has been forced to publicly defend the Catholic Church against accusations that the church covered up historical sex abuse. AAP/Joe Castro

The extraordinary wealth of the Catholic Church contributes to its power: a power and wealth many believe should attract the status of a corporation. The Catholic Church is an unincorporated association which is not a legal entity and, as such, cannot hold assets or property in its own name. Rather, the multiple property trusts of the different dioceses and religious orders - which are enshrined in legislation - hold all the property, assets and wealth of the Catholic Church.

It is the biggest private employer in Australia with 180,000 employees. It is reported that it owns A$100billion worth of properties and other assets; it makes A$15billion a year from its businesses (particularly education, health and welfare services) and it receives hundreds of millions of dollars each year by way of donations from parishioners.

In Australia, the Catholic Church, along with other religious organisations, has an elitist tax-free status. All of its investment earnings are tax free: it does not pay rates for its property, it does not pay land tax and there is no capital gains tax on the sale of assets. It demands all the perks, but none of the fiscal responsibilities.

If the Catholic Church were a corporation, not only would this provide clergy abuse victims with a legal entity that could be sued, it would also attract a tax status like any other big business, thus contributing back to society.

But, in claiming penury, the Catholic Church displays a pathological lack of compassion and cruelty to thousands of clergy sex abuse victims in Australia. It actively constructs - or at least blindly refuses to change - its affairs to avoid its responsibilities. No wonder its faithful are deserting.

Probably the greatest deception and betrayal of the Catholic hierarchy, and the reason for an even greater mass departure, is its gross mismanagement of its sex abuse crisis and scandal. Appallingly, clergy sex crimes against children are not new. But over the last 20-30 years, the increasing empowerment of victims, a more questioning public, the internet and the media have joined forces and exposed the widespread and criminally-concealed sex abuse problem within the church. Such courage and forbearance of victims and their families are finally holding the hierarchy accountable.

There are many thousands of good Catholics in Australia and the employment of 180,000 workers is a good thing. But if Rome and its extremely powerful, wealthy and ageing boys club (including Cardinal George Pell) want to be relevant in 2013 and beyond, they must match their power and authority with compassion, responsibility and accountability – both civic and moral.

They must also relinquish their questionable hold on power allowing the people, women and men equally, to be the church.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 110,700 academics and researchers from 3,634 institutions.

Register now