The National Centre for Pastoral Research (NCPR) has released its findings on the ‘social profile’ of Catholicism in Australia, offering a national profile, diocesan profiles, and individual profiles of 1,230 parishes.

The findings draw on data from the 2021 Australian Census with the aim of offering parishes valuable information about their local settings.

Where possible, the statistics in the 2021 parish profiles have been compared with data from 2016.

‘It will be a valuable tool to help parishes understand their local communities,’ said Professor Gabrielle McMullen, chair of the Australian Catholic Council for Pastoral Research. ‘It is important that parish leaders have the latest information, so they can assess the pastoral needs of people and then plan the best way to meet those needs.’

Trudy Dantis, the director of the National Centre for Pastoral Research, said the reports provide statistics on a range of demographic measures, including age, sex and country of birth, that present the evolving nature of Catholic parishes. They also contain important information on the language people speak at home, the makeup of their families and households, their income levels, occupation, and employment status. Data on educational background and attendance at educational institutions are also included.

‘The work of analysing the data from the 2021 Census is a lengthy process and, while 2021 might feel like a long time ago, the details in these reports help paint the most comprehensive picture we can of local Catholic communities,’ Dr Dantis said. The next data will not be available until 2028.

The changing parish landscape

There has been a noted decline in the Catholic make-up of the general population. In 2016, Catholics made up 22.6% of the Australian population; this has dropped to 20% according to the 2021 data. That said, the general population of Australia also increased by 8.6% between those censuses (about two million people).

A drop in the number parishes around Australia has also been revealed. For the last census in 2016, NCPR created profiles for 1,297 parishes. In 2021, by contrast, profiles were made for 1,230. Amid the drop, however, parish boundaries have also been changing significantly. More than 100 parishes were involved in geographical changes to their parish boundaries, adapting to the various needs of their settings.

The rise in the ‘nones’ (those selecting ‘no religion’ in the census) is also reflected in the parish profiles. In 2016, just 11 parishes had half or more of their local populations who did not identify with any religion. In 2021, this number had risen to 139 parishes.

The median age of Catholics has increased to 43 in 2021 from 40 in 2016. In 1996, the median age of Catholics around the country was 33.

There are a greater number of women across Australia who identify as Catholic, and Catholic women are more likely to be employed as ‘managers or professionals’ (39 per cent of women versus 35 per cent of men), while Catholic men are far more likely to have a ‘blue collar’ occupation (45 per cent of men compared with 12 per cent of women).

The top five birthplaces overseas for Catholics are: the Philippines, Italy, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland), India and New Zealand.

Interestingly, the highest proportion of recent arrivals are from Colombia, Brazil, Iraq, Argentina, and the Philippines.

On the economic front, it seems as though 77% of Catholic households across Australia in 2021 were either homeowners or in the process of purchasing a home, which is higher than the national average for that year, which was 67% of the Australian population.

It is important that parish leaders have the latest information, so they can assess the pastoral needs of people and then plan the best way to meet those needs.

The Archdiocese of Melbourne

The data for Melbourne does reflect some of the broader national trends. According to the NCPR findings, in 2021 the Catholic population of Melbourne was 20.9% (1,038,276) of the general population (4,962,431).

Interestingly, 84% of Catholics in Melbourne live in a family setting, compared with 82% in 2016—the percentage of those who have never been married and those who have been separated or divorced continues to steadily increase, however. In 2021, 10% of Catholics in Melbourne lived alone.

Melbourne’s Catholic community also reflects the rich diversity of liturgical rites in the Church. While the majority of Catholics are part of the Western (Latin) Rite, the second highest liturgical affiliation is Chaldean Catholic (at 4,905 people), then Maronite Catholic (3,457), Syro-Malabar Catholic (2,273), Ukrainian Catholic (1,242), and Melkite Catholic (673).

Melbourne is also an ecumenically diverse place. In 2021, Anglicans made up 5.7% of the population, Orthodox Christians 4.5%, and ‘Other Christians’ 9.3%. ‘Non-Christians’ (which includes Islam, Hinduism, and other faiths) sat at 14.9% and ‘No Religion’ at 38.4%. Those not wanting to state their religion sat at 6.4%.

More women than men identify as Catholic (549,145 women versus 489,129 men), with similar statistics surrounding the rates of occupation (‘professionals and managers’ or ‘blue collar’).

There are differences in rates of educational qualifications, too, with 24.6% of Catholic males having a tertiary degree or higher, in comparison with 30.2% of females.

In Melbourne, the top five birthplaces of Catholics overseas are: Italy (4.8% of the Catholic population), the Philippines (3.9%), India (2%), United Kingdom (1.8%), and Vietnam (1.7%).

The highest proportion of recent arrivals are from Colombia, Brazil, Iraq, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Pastoral planning for the future

‘By giving a clear picture of the diocese’s demographic reality,’ the report says, ‘this profile helps the diocesan leaders name its strengths and shortcomings and better understand how it might use the resources it has to pursue the mission of the Church.’

Rockhampton Bishop Michael McCarthy, the Bishop Delegate for Pastoral Research, said he values the insights that the reports offer.

‘Each parish should have three things—its own vision or aspiration, an understanding of what sort of people make up its local Catholic and general community, and an awareness of the resources and gifts available to the parish to realise the vision,’ he said.

‘The social profiles provided in these reports will empower parishes using pastoral planning to move into the future with hope and confidence, ready to do the work of Jesus Christ as the people of God on mission.’