Christianity in decline? Ask the Church why

The Australian Bureau of Statistics last week released data from the 2021 Census, revealing how the number of Australians who are not religious has increased further.

In 1971, 87 per cent of Australians identified as religious, and overwhelmingly as Christian. Now it’s 54 per cent. What is more, only five years ago, 52 per cent of Australians identified as Christian. Now that number is sitting at 44 per cent, which represents an almost 20 per cent decline in Christian belief in just five years. 

While many of the usual suspects are pleased with this outcome and are ready to celebrate it, others have more sagely noted the decline in belief has had deleterious effects on our society.

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson stated on Sky News Australia:

‘The big question that arises is what are the linkages then between the other things the Census tells us about?

‘We know that mental health is now the number one health concern, we have unparalleled levels of anxiety, depression, and self-harm amongst our young people.

‘Increasingly our society looks frankly more fractured, less trustworthy, more broken up, more divided along identity politics lines, less coherent than ever.

‘So my question to those who are dancing on the grave as they think they are of Christianity – what’s the alternative, where is your better way?’

In her column in The Australian on June 30, Peta Credlin expressed similar sentiments, noting how fundamental Christianity is to the foundations of our nation and society. Credlin wrote:

‘It may not be fashionable to say so, but the way we live is unimaginable without a Christian cultural foundation. Our democracy, for instance, rests on the notion that everyone is equal in rights and dignity, something that’s come down to us through the Christian gospels. 

‘Then there’s the not insignificant matter of what religious organisations contribute in terms of social uplift. Beyond a values-based education, they run an abundance of health and community services. To reference the largest Christian denomination, the Catholic Church, as an example, there are 80 Catholic hospitals across the country and 25,000-plus aged-care beds in Catholic nursing homes, as well as social welfare bodies and charities with a broader Christian inspiration – from the Salvation Army, to the St Vincent de Paul Society, to Anglicare, to Lifeline, and Alcoholics Anonymous – all organisations that are generally thought to be serving Australians well, however discredited the zeitgeist might find the faith which inspires their good works.’

I couldn’t agree more. And, as much as they would hate to admit it, you wouldn’t have universities if it weren’t for the Catholic Church.

But there is a more fundamental question to be asked. Why has this rapid decline occurred? Credlin hints at an answer:

‘It’s on this very principle (that everyone is equal in rights and dignity), as an example, that I reject the idea of a race-based body in our Constitution in the form of the Indigenous voice to the Parliament and it’s disappointing to see some religious leaders support it because it’s an anathema to the fundamentals of Christian faith.’

In many ways, the Church has itself to blame for a decline in adherents.

In my experience in the Catholic Church, the rush to mingle with the dominant culture that the world offers – in other words, Marxism – has not kept the faithful in the Church, but, in fact, has had the opposite effect, except in places that are faithful to doctrine and traditional precepts and practices.

As I have written before in these pages, the Church’s fundamental mission has always been a counter-cultural one. As St Paul stated in 1 Corinthians (4: 10), we are fools on Christ’s account. Our Lord Himself told the disciples at the Last Supper (St John 15: 18-20): ‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you. If you belonged to the world, the world would know you for its own and love you; it is because you do not belong to the world, because I have singled you out from the midst of the world, that the world hates you.’

Unfortunately, the vast majority of schools run by not only the Catholic Church, but by the other Christian denominations, have forgotten this fundamental mission and embraced the world, to deleterious effects. As a priest-friend of mine told me:

‘Why would you send your children to a Catholic school? It would only serve to inoculate them against Catholicism.’

An example of this was reported in the Nine Newspapers the day after the Census resulted were released. As a child growing up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Alexandra Wright was raised in a devout Irish Catholic family whose members attended church every Sunday. The piece goes on to state that, ‘Wright felt so connected to her faith that she insisted on attending a Catholic high school, St Vincent’s College in Potts Point. By age 15, however, she began to have an “inkling” that religion was no longer for her.’

Therein lies the problem. A majority of teachers at Catholic schools are not regular adherents and therefore would have no interest in supporting parents give the gift of faith to their children, indeed actively questioning fundamental Church teachings, rather than giving students the intellectual rigour to defend them. Plus, these teachers are, by and large, on board with the climate cult and any other woke ideology you can think of.

In the view of this correspondent, to try and arrest this trend, a radical rethink is required regarding government aid to religious schools. Thanks to the efforts of B.A. Santamaria, with the agreement at the relevant times of Sir Robert Menzies and Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte, governments at both state and federal level provide funding to non-government schools. While these giants of Australian politics at the time could not have imagined it, the negative effects of this policy are now being seen. Christian schools might be in a much stronger position to argue against governments imposing radical Marxist social policy in their establishments if they were not so dependent on government funding. If you are going to take the devil’s money, you are sooner or later going to have to dance to his tune. And why would you bite the hand that feeds you?

If the Church wishes to attract its faithful once more to its pews, it must remember its fundamental counter-cultural mission. As Kevin Donnelly wrote in the Weekend Australian on June 18: (Sir Roger) Scruton argues Western societies have to regain ‘confidence […] in the spiritual inheritance on which they ultimately rest’.

The sooner the Church realises this, the better.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Curtin University.

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