Bishops seek to reconnect with Catholics

Australia's Catholic bishops have hailed the findings of a specially commissioned research report that identifies reasons for declines in Church attendance over recent decades including abuse scandals, restricted roles for women and a lack of vibrant leadership.

Meeting in Sydney last week, the Bishops said that the "Disconnected Catholics" research project was a help in understanding the very complex personal, spiritual and cultural factors which have seen a decline in church-going over recent decades.

"The research project is part of our deep and ongoing desire to connect with people who have left the Church and to listen to their experiences, so that we might identify ways to reach out to them and welcome them back," the statement released by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) said.

Forty-one people, aged from 29 to 74 were interviewed for the qualitative research project.

Among the reasons given for people ceasing to attend Mass included a perceived irrelevance of the Church to modern life, the quality of homilies, inter-personal problems with a parish priest, problems with Church teachings or personal faith, and disillusionment in the wake of sexual scandals.

The research carried out by the ACBC Pastoral Projects Office also identified cultural and societal factors which meant that Mass was no longer a priority.

Those interviewed in the project also complained of the silencing of prominent theologians and other Catholic thinkers, decisions being made without consultation and a church focused on rules, not compassion, the West Australian adds.

Some said their parish priest promoted an anti-intellectual environment where "his word was law and critical thinking discouraged". Others pointed to their priest's problem with alcohol, sexual indiscretions or abuse as a key reason for not attending Mass.

For some Catholics, faith no longer provided meaning or made sense. However, this was not driven by better education or widening scientific knowledge but a questioning of church teachings, the role of religion in world conflicts and a sense of uncertainty about the meaning of life and the existence of God, the study said.

"They spoke about fear and guilt, saying that these things prevented them from being able to trust in God and reach a more mature faith. Even after they had stopped going to Mass, they continued to feel guilt and to be conscious of a fear of going to hell."

However, the Bishops said that the new research would be a valuable tool in forming pastoral strategies to help people return to the practice of their faith.

"We welcome this study, which provides us with valuable insights into the reasons why some Catholics no longer attend Mass and take part in the sacramental life of the Church," the Bishops said.

"Together with our own pastoral experience and in the context of the broader cultural situation, we will use this study to help chart a path forward."

Half the respondents said they still attend Mass occasionally and almost one third of participants said they might return to weekly Mass attendance in the future.

"These experiences are varied and complex and provide lessons from which to learn as well as great challenges and opportunities for us," they said.

"It is our hope that those who have stopped attending Mass and perhaps many who have never been to a Catholic Church will accept our sincere invitation to make contact with their local parish and experience the love of Jesus Christ through the life of His Church," the Bishops conclude.

Catholics cite scandals for Mass decline (The West Australian, 2/12/06)
Bishops welcome new research (Media Release, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, 1/12/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference

Study says British Catholicism facing "pastoral catastrophe" (CathNews, 5/7/06)
5.9% decline in Mass attendance in Chicago last year (CathNews 2/1/04)
Pell blames Sunday sport for decline in mass attendance (CathNews 17/12/03)

4 Dec 2006