Thursday, 30 August 2012

The collapse of Catholic marriage in Australia

Cath News yesterday highlighted an interesting story on the latest ABS marriage statistics for Australia (for 2010). 

The Fairfax media angle on the story was the dramatic decline in the proportion of religious weddings. 

The Cath News comments (equally predictably) reflect a mix of complacency (based on a misunderstanding of the statistic on the proportion of catholic weddings) and 'what we need is authenticity and commitment' not church weddings type rhetoric.

But the real story here I think is the continuing collapse of marriage as an institution in this country, including (and indeed especially) amongst those calling themselves catholics.

Collapse of marriage

At first blush the number of marriages looks encouraging, because it has actually increased in real terms.  But that is before you take account of population growth.

The reality is that the marriage rate, the proportion of the population actually getting married, crashed in the 1990s, and shows no signs of recovering.

Source: ABS 3310.0
Moreover, those overall figures disguise a few important trends. 

First, the marriage rate amongst Australian-born people continues to fall, while marriages amongst those born overseas continues to rise. 

Secondly, the absolute number of marriages in 2010 was lower than in 1990 in all but two States and one Territory - WA and Queensland, plus the NT.  Marriage too, it seems, reflects the 'two-speed economy'!

Thirdly, a startling 78.9% of those getting married co-habited beforehand.

The secularization of marriage

The angle on the story highlighted in the media report was the collapse in the proportion of religious marriages, and it is indeed a pretty dramatic trend, as the graph below illustrates:

Source: ABS 3310
Basically, the proportion of civil marriages rose to equal the number of religious marriages in 1998, and now 69.2% of all ceremonies are civil.

That's not really that surprising given the rise of secularism in Australia and increasing proportion of people declaring no religious affiliation: the only real surprise is that anyone bothers to get married at all given that marriage these days provides no extra legal protection compared to being in a de facto relationship.

The Catholic collapse

I noted above some sense of complacency in response to the figure that a third of religious ceremonies were catholic.

Now it is true that Catholic marriages still constitute a third of those religious ceremonies - but that is a third of a declining pool. 

The proportions of catholics getting married at all, in other words, as well as the proportion using a religious ceremony, continues to decline sharply.

And that is particularly problematic from a Catholic perspective since if you were baptised a catholic, your marriage is only valid (so far as the Church is concerned) if it took place in Church (unless you got a dispensation).  It is true of course that the couple marry themselves - but for that to occur they have to go through the proper 'matter and form', including those pesky requirements of pre-checks and instruction on the sacrament.

Our schools are bursting at the seams by all accounts.  But based on these statistics, though those kids might be baptised in order to get into our subsidised schools, they are bursting, one suspects with children from 'families' that have abandoned the sacrament established for the perpetuation of society.

No wonder the 'catholicity' of our schools is so often questioned...


Anonymous said...

The number of weddings at my local Parish Church (which with its beautiful gothic features was traditionally very popular for weddings)demonstrates this decline.

In the 1990s you had to book one of the five or so Saturday slots for weddings at least 9 months in advance in order to get married there on a Saturday.

When I was in the sacristy a few weeks ago talking to the priest I noticed the list of upcoming weddings on the noticeboard and was amazed to discover that for most Saturdays only a single wedding was listed for that day. This included Saturdays in the spring. Furthermore, most of the weddings listed had a comment along the lines of "ceremony only; no nuptial Mass".

The decline in the number of weddings (about 80%) at this particular Church in the last 20 years is very concerning.

Kevin P

A Canberra Observer said...

so often we come back to the behemoth 'Catholic education' system in this country.

It seems almost self-evident that this edifice which has and continues to attract so much of the institutional Church's attention is a manifest failure.

One doubts if the 'system' has any plan to teach about the central place and importance of marriage, having succumbed to the secular humanist lie of "its OK so long as you love each other".

And preaching, generally and for marriages in particular, is I contend woefully deficient on the topic of marriage since a long time. Thank the incipient cowardice of bishops and clergy who didn't want to upset the natives, and I will postulate the "only preach on the readings of the day (only)" 'rubric' brought to us with the roll out of the new liturgy. In a different age I suspect pastors had a view to covering important topics such as marriage. No more.

Robert said...

Another problem with Catholic marriage in Australia is that since Vatican II, annulments have become dreadfully easy to obtain, and are now as stigma-free as divorces. Indeed, among certain sections of Catholic "laity" they are now considered to be almost hip.

There are allegations that if one half of a Catholic couple refuses to sign up to pre-marital "counselling" - which in practice comprises "theology of the body", blah blah blah - this refusal counts, in and of itself, as a valid ground for a subsequent annulment. I prefer not to believe such claims, but I have certainly encountered them.

However that may be, one thing is sure: if priests made the smallest genuine effort to oppose concubinage, the present appallingly high rate of it would decline soon enough. But such opposition might entail short-term unpopularity, and that is what the average Australian "Catholic" dreads far more than hell.

Peter said...

The collapse has been not quite as catastrophic as you suggest, as you didn't allow for the increazse in longevity. That is, part of the reason for fewer marraiges per head of population is that there are fewer people of the typical marryaing age (20s and 30s) as a proportion of the whole population.

It would be interesting to see a comparison of the LENGTH of marriages today with past decades. I'm betting the average length has increased, despite the prevalence of divorce. People live longer and most of them stay married longer.

Canberra Observer, it is perfectly possible and in fact quite easy for preachers to preach only based on the readings of the day AND cover all important tpoics of catechesis. There are several readings in the Sunday cycle which serve as great foundations for a homily on marriage.

Kate Edwards said...

Peter - You are right that population ageing will skew the figures somewhat, but the change in proportions over the last two decades surely isn't big enough to really explain the extent of the crash. In fact the overall proportion of the population of working age (15-64) over this period increased slightly, from 66.8% (June 1991) to 67.4% (June 2011).

Maureen said...

Coming in a bit late here: no-one has mentioned the demise of the good old CYO - Catholic Youth Organisations - which used to flourish in almost every parish. So many people met their future spouses at the social funcions, and if both parties are Catholic - well then, it's so much simpler.

These days you are lucky to be able to find a functioning Youth Group anywhere, and the reality is that Catholic schools - even the Departmental ones, are barely affordable for many. So their children attend the local State High schools instead,thereby reducing their chances of meeting other young practising Catholics.

Therefore, there are many more "mixed marriages" than in previous generations.

My pooor mother copped it from both sides! - She was Jewish, but not overly observant, and she used to come to Mass on occasion, with my father and grandmother. Each time she attended, the priest seemed to be pounding the pulpit in good old fire-and-brimstone style, denouncing the evil of Mixed Marriage; and on the occasions she attended the synagogue, she got the same speech from the Rabbi! - that "marrying out" was decimating the Jewish population!

A Canberra Observer said...

Peter - it may be true that the lectionary inlcudes readings which might serve as a launchpad for teaching on marriage. However I stick by my contention, based on observation of the content of all sermons I've heard and that they almost invariably never depart from direct reference to the texts of the day. The mindset means that it is unlikely that a preacher ever introduces material such as dogma or catechism.

Getting off topic now, but I know of an Archbishop (retired now Deo gratias) who used the 'readings of the day' 'rubric' to prevent a series of sermons on the new Catechism.