King David, in the Old Testament, spoke with the wisdom of profound and dramatic experience: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the sons of men, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146, verse 3, King James Bible). It is a phrase which Australia’s adherents of the Catholic Church must now ponder with renewed application. To understand the import of this — and to ascertain the possible implications of this Australian development for American believers — we must first grasp the general demographics of antipodean religious practice.
Catholicism is the largest single religious body in Australia now. (All the figures in this paragraph, and in the next two paragraphs, are taken from the 2011 national census.) The 5.4 million Australians who identify themselves as Catholics constitute slightly over one-fourth — 25.3 per cent — of the country’s total population. In second place — though until the 1980s it was securely in first place — is the Anglican Church, with which 17.1 per cent of Australians identified in 2011. The Uniting Church (a 1977 amalgamation of Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist parishes) comes third nationally, with 5 per cent. All other Christian communities, including traditional Presbyterianism, are smaller still. Persons who state that they belong to non-Christian religions amount to 7.2 percent.
Nevertheless, the most consistent growth area among Australians — accounting for 31.7 per cent of the populace — has been that of “no religion.” There is every reason to suppose that already the 31.7 per cent figure of 2011 is out of date, and that the next census (due in 2016) will show a higher number still in that box. No Australian Bureau of Statistics data exist to determine the earlier allegiances, if any, of the non-religious. We therefore do not know — either from the Australian Bureau of Statistics itself, or from any private source analogous to America’s Pew Research Center — how many individuals in the 2011 “no religion” category are ex-Catholics, how many ex-Anglicans, how many ex-Lutherans, and so forth.
But to quote Henry David Thoreau: “some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” Much which is relevant to Australia can be gleaned suggestively, if not always conclusively, from American sources. The Pew Research Center’s report of June 13, 2008 revealed that the proportion of ex-Catholics in the U.S.A. had grown to fully 10 per cent of the total population. American Catholicism has undergone a spectacular hemorrhaging in terms of membership. The only reason this has not been automatically obvious in national Catholic statistics (since self-identified Catholics still account for around 25 per cent of Americans, just as they do for around 25 per cent of Australians) is that Hispanic immigration, much of it notoriously illegal, has thus far stanched the outward flow of members from that church. The National Catholic Reporter announced on February 11, 2011:
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Photo at top shows George Cardinal Pell next to statue of St. Thomas More, who was beheaded for putting his allegiance to God above his allegiance to the State as represented by King Henry VIII; photo source: AP Images