That Christianity has largely collapsed in Australia is now undeniable, and we have entered a period of introspection around its causes and what might be done to salvage the remains. The contemporary analysis of Christian decline often focuses on a perceived hostility emanating from a cohort of prominent Australians: a Green Left political movement, a hostile ABC (Australian broadcasting commission), and a nest of rabid social media trolls ready to attack Christians (such as Cardinal George Pell and Margaret Court) who defend traditional values. It is also true that the Church has lost legislative battles relating to same-sex marriage, abortion, and voluntary assisted suicide.
However, if we are brutally honest, did the Church fight aggressively or persistently on any of these matters? No, it did not. Isolated bishops or dioceses were prepared to occasionally issue low-grade warnings, yet most bishops and priests were silent, did nothing, and in many cases advocated for these ideals themselves from their pulpits or within their school communities. These battles over traditional Christian ideas were not lost because the ABC was too powerful but because most Catholic Church leaders no longer believed in them.
Recently, in Australia, there is a new phenomenon on which to hang Christian decline —COVID restrictions. Yet again, the greater problem stems from the majority of bishops and priests who did not actually strive to keep their churches open. Indeed, is there one single mainstream bishop who railed against such restrictions in any public way? Unfortunately, there were none.
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So, perhaps, we may now come to the crux of Christian collapse in Australia: too many bishops and priests stopped talking about Jesus.
Whether from embarrassment or just a feeling that the example and life of Jesus was no longer relevant to Australian life, the churches have certainly stopped mentioning Christ in the public arena. Most Christian statements or sermons don’t mention Him, His Saints, Our Lady, or the fundamentals of Christian belief. Bishops have replaced all this with endless talk of social justice. These days, the major Christian topics are refugees, indigenous disadvantage, and climate change. Over the last 30 years, some of these promotions have been increasingly desperate and frivolous, particularly around the abolition of plastic bags and the development of more bike lanes. Yet, again, no mention of the faith.
Further, in recent decades the focus of the Church has been to highlight the intelligence, compassion, and skills of women. Unfortunately, all this promotion was only related to one issue—getting women into Church leadership. Whilst traditional Christianity has never downplayed the skills or talents of women, it has not—in 2000 years of history—ordained women as either bishops, priests, or deacons. The fact that Christ Himself hadn’t involved women in this ministry no longer seemed to matter; plainly, He was a man of His time. But here is the bigger issue: if Jesus so clearly got it wrong on women’s ministry, on what else could He have been mistaken—the nature of marriage, the sexuality of humanity, the beginnings of life, the nature of suicide and the voluntary taking of elderly lives or those deemed useless?
On all these issues, Australian Christian leaders no longer feel sufficiently convinced to support Christ’s fundamental teachings. Naturally, women’s issues are of vital and central importance to Australian society. Yet it is an ongoing shame that the Church has nothing to say about another type of woman: the one who has chosen to keep her baby in difficult circumstances; the one who has struggled for her marriage in tough economic times; the one who has worked two jobs to send her kids to school; or the one compelled into a burka, married as a child, and forced to endure female circumcision. This kind of woman is not worthy of either acknowledgement or support.
Australian Church leaders are also very quick to criticize their own nation and absent themselves from any praise of what Australians do well. Refugee policy has been described as “inhuman and demeaning,” reduction in overseas aid as “a devastating blow to the global poor and a breach of trust with the Australian public,” detention centers as “measures of intentional cruelty.” The trust of Prime Ministers is often called into question, mission activity is seen to be aggressive and lacking in cultural sensitivity, the collapse of Western Christianity is seen to be “a good thing.” Mum and dad shareholders are encouraged to divest shares that are “deeply embedded in damaging corporate behavior.” These comments pervade both the statements of Australian bishops and Christian aid agencies.
The prevalent view of Australian Church leadership centers on a general mistrust of wealth creation and hostility to free markets. This leads to constant calls for wealth transfers in the form of tax increases and increased welfare. No other options or possibilities are ever considered. Ironically, calls for greater state intervention in solving social problems has historically been seen as an un-Christian view. Indeed, the defects of the welfare state and the horrors of Communist life and oppression have always reinforced the Christian perspective that private individuals, the family, and local communities are the center of health, wealth, and security. Australian Church leaders no longer support these values.
Perhaps nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the bishops’ unwillingness to confront Chinese Communism, the vigorous persecution of Christians in that country, the destruction of democracy in Hong Kong, and the threats to Taiwan and other nations, including our own, who beg to disagree with the Chinese-Communist understanding of the world. In the Australian Church, there has been no Christian leader who condemns this brutality or oppression. Nevertheless, in my view, the central crisis of Australian Christianity is yet more simple and more heartbreaking.
One of the great gifts of Christianity to the Western world was the organized development of local communities. These local “parish communities” were not only the focus of local religious devotion, but they also provided the beginnings of education, local leadership to solve local problems, a center of belonging, and a protective community for those who suffered from illness and loss. The beginnings of rudimentary hospitals and security for weary travellers could often be secured under the umbrella of the parish church.
Sadly, the modern Australian equivalent of these local parishes bares no relation to their historic functions or indeed their functions until perhaps the 1960s and 1970s. Christian parishes today have little connection to community formation, offer nothing to local families, are often closing their parish education centers, and have no mechanisms for looking after the elderly, sick, or those suffering from mental illness, depression, or drug addiction. All these functions are now outsourced to large professional organizations who may carry Christian names but, as we all know, have virtually no connection to communities or local networks.
The reality of the modern Christian parish is one of closure or merger. Yet religious bodies that disrespect “the local” soon find they have nothing much to offer anyone. Yes, I know that bishops of all flavors are besotted with climate change, refugees, and indigenous Australians. But leaders who abandon “the local” throw away the uniqueness of who we are. Above all, Christian leaders should know this. Yet it appears the final indignity for the faith is one of blandness and endless decline into irrelevance and slumber.
Christianity is a religion of resurrection and hope. The people of the Church know this. Yet as Christian leaders look to other inspirations, it’s time for the Church to start again.
[Photo: Catholic Cathedral in Darwin, Australia (Wikimedia Commons)]