Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ageing priests may cause Church to look for funding

Major changes are being forced on the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn by the continuing ageing and reduced number of priests and regular adherents.

The archbishop, Mark Coleridge, summarises the position. ''What we need, then, are new structures and strategies which correspond to the facts of this time, not the facts of 50 years ago,'' he said in his keynote address last November to the assembly of his archdiocese.

That address also included a statement which is quite baffling. ''I sometimes think - this is a bit wicked - that we have about twice the number of schools and parishes and churches in Canberra than we need.''

He qualifies this by saying it is an overstatement but does not address in the report what he might do about this apparent excess.

A spokesman for the Catholic Education Office says there is no intention of closing any school and that enrolments are increasing.

The spokesman said the context of the archbishop's keynote address was a challenge to start a discussion. Surely provoking a discussion on a false premise is unhelpful and disrespectful.

Having refused to respond to some questions from The Canberra Times on this matter early last week, Coleridge later penned a missive to the editor in which he said, ''I have not the slightest intention of closing schools, churches or anything else at this stage - neither in Canberra nor in any other part of the archdiocese.''

Given the financial straits of the archdiocese, it is reasonable to expect the Church will have to find new sources of revenue. 

In an interview with ABC Canberra's Genevieve Jacobs last Monday, Coleridge was asked if schools might have to finance parishes.

''We might have to look at something of that kind, but nothing as dramatic as that makes it sound,'' was Coleridge's initial response. Later he said, ''But we might have to imagine ways in which the schools can also support the parishes financially.'' 

There has been no elucidation on how he would see schools financing parishes but the implications are significant. 

Is it, for example, that families who have forsaken regular mass attendance but choose Catholic schools for their children will be asked to pay a levy to support the parish?

The Church is certainly tormented that schools have effectively replaced the parish church as the source of religious formation, and that the tens of thousands of young people who attend Catholic schools are absent from Sunday mass. Indeed, so are most of their parents.

Only five per cent of those attending mass regularly in the archdiocese are aged 15-19 and only six per cent are 20-29. The average age of regular mass attendees in the archdiocese is 54 and rising.

Ageing regular church attenders is not confined to the Catholic Church. 

For example, the median age of Canberra Anglicans attending church is about 54, compared to the median age of Canberra's population of about 34.5.

The major difference is that Anglicans have no shortage of priests.