While the number of Catholics in Australia is only slightly down from 2016, the aging population is a call to adjustments in ministry.
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A new report from the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops is examining Australia’s Catholic population. The data, taken in 2021, shows a slightly smaller and older Catholic community from five years ago, but it is also an increasingly diverse community, with many faithful who were born outside the English-speaking world.
The national census data found that 5,075,910 of Australia’s 25,422,788 population identify as Catholic, which is almost exactly 20%. This figure is down about 2.5% from the tallies of the 2016 census. In comments to Vatican News, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, called the figures disappointing, but unsurprising due to a “broad shift away from religious identification in Australian society.”
While the decline in numbers is slight at the moment, the Australian Catholic community was also found to be aging, which suggests that Catholic ranks could dwindle further in the upcoming decades. The average age of an Australian Catholic was 43 in 2021, which is a decade higher than the average age of 33 recorded in 1996. The average age of all Australians stands at 38.
One of the report’s key findings was seen in the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity of Australian Catholics. More than one-fifth (21.5%) reported being born in a non-English-speaking country, with the same portion noting that they speak a language other than English at home.
The five most common countries of origin for this group were the Philippines, Italy, India, Vietnam, and Croatia. While the number of foreign-born or non-English-speaking Catholics is in line with the national average, it shows a distinct need for Masses to be celebrated in multiple languages.
The report measured the prevalence of Roman Catholicism separately from Eastern Catholicism, which accounts for about 1.5% of the nation’s Catholic population. Of these, 47,003 were Maronite, 3,091 Melkite, 2,886 Ukrainian, 14,108 Chaldean, and 10,305 Syro-Malabar.
It did note, however, that these numbers are likely higher, as it was reported that many Eastern Catholics ticked the standard “Catholic” box. The report speculates that the number of Eastern Catholics could be as much as twice as high as recorded, based on the 3% rate of respondents citing speaking languages traditionally associated with the Eastern Churches.