Lapsed Catholics are Catholics too


Catholic Voice Journalist CHRIS GORDON pondered the role of less-active Catholics in the Plenary process and, more broadly, in the Church today, and offers this opinion piece.

Recently the Catholic Voice published some statistics that showed the average percentages of Catholics in the Archdiocese that are attending Mass.

I’ll recap. As at the 2016 census, there were 655,897 people living in the geographic area that is the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

Of those, 155,084 identified as Catholic. That’s a bit less than a quarter of the population.

And of those 155,084, around 16,160 attend Mass weekly.

In the two years since the census, additional information has recorded that Mass attendance has gone up by around 10%… which means around 17,776 are attending each weekend, about 11.5% of the Catholic population.

Now, statistics are amazing things. The same set of statistics can be used by two different people to make two entirely different points.

One of the points that jumps off the page to me isn’t that 11.5% of the Catholic population are still going to Mass. It’s that 88.5% are still hanging in there.

To be a Catholic in the consensus doesn’t require evidence or a level of involvement. It only requires that you tick a box.

And 138,924 people in this region that AREN’T attending Mass decided to tick Catholic.

They haven’t ticked Atheist. They haven’t written in Jedi or Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They haven’t left it blank.

They’ve said Catholic.

And in that one act, I believe they are saying “I’m hanging in there. You haven’t lost me yetShow me something.” 

To paraphrase the quintessential Aussie philosopher Jimmy Barnes, they’re standing on the outside looking in. But at least they’re still looking, and that’s not nothing.

What does it mean to be Catholic?

There’s a hymn we sang a lot at Mass when I was a kid that went: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

That’s well and good, but how are you able to tell a Catholic? What defines a Catholic?

It’s easy to be a Catholic in a census. Just tick a box. Done. Of course, that’s not really a qualifier.

So what actually makes you a Catholic?

Well, if you’re baptised a Catholic, you’re a Catholic. That’s pretty simple.

It’s a binary result: Yes or no. You’re a Catholic or you’re not. It’s a bit like pregnancy. You can’t be a little bit Catholic. Not technically.

But of course few things in life are that simple.

Baptism is you’re ticket to ride, but it doesn’t mean that you got on board.

Then there are the other sacraments. Chances are, if you were baptised, you have also celebrated reconciliation, communion, and confirmation…and possibly marriage. Four or five sacraments in total.

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Now those aren’t merely boxes to tick or notches on a belt. They are significant gifts of God’s grace that touch our lives deeply.

And they are the elements that help define a Catholic.

And those four or five sacraments are what most of the 11.5%, and most of the 88.5% have in common.

If you’ve received extreme unction you might be up to six sacraments… if you’ve married AND been a priest… maybe even seven.

But for the most part, four or five sacraments is what adult Catholics have, from busiest bishop to laziest “Lapsed” Catholic.

How did it lapse?

In fact the term “Lapsed Catholic” is a misnomer.

Catholicism doesn’t lapse. It’s not like a library card, or club membership, or an insurance policy where you cease to be covered if you don’t update, or pay, by a certain time.

You don’t at some point cease to be a Catholic (unless you make a conscious decision to leave) any more than you cease to be a child of God.

But since Lapsed Catholic is a term people frequently use to describe “less active” Catholics, let’s use it that way here.

And there are many levels of activity, of commitment or involvement, of interest and possibly of belief within the spectrum of Catholicism. That’s hardly surprising given that the literal, non-religious, small C meaning of the word catholic is “including a wide variety of things, inclusive.”

So the non-Mass-attending Catholics, the “lapsed Catholics”, how did they get to where they are?

Did they get busy? Were they only ever casual participants? Did they have a change of heart or a change of mind? Are they angry with the Church? There could be dozens of reasons.

But in the case of the 88.5%… they haven’t given their religion the flick. Not yet.

And it seems to me that understanding the 88.5%… keeping the 88.5%… engaging the 88.5%… is a prime priority of the Church today.

A Plenary indulgence

The Catholic Church is now well advanced in its preparations for the Plenary Council of 2020. It is a watershed moment, and a very timely opportunity for the Church.

And it comes at a time when people’s commitment to and engagement in ALL external activities appears to be on the decline.

It’s not just Church that suffers from decrease attendance.

Most sports suffer from declining numbers. Volunteerism in general struggles to attract participants. And many religions are experiencing dwindling numbers.

That’s the backdrop to the problems facing ALL groups today.

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More specifically, the Catholic has some other challenges to deal with, some of which relate to poor governance and abuse of trust.

Amidst addressing those issues, there is also that requirement all organisations have… to continually examine processes and practices to see if they remain relevant and on track.

To that end, the voices of the 88.5% are crucial. Partly because the voices of the full 100% are crucial, but specifically because it may well be that the 88.5%… the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the Archdiocese as it turns out… have some unique insights and input that might explain how they’ve drifted away, and how they might return.

These are insights the Plenary Council could benefit from.

What you want is not necessarily a bad thing

We recently ran an editorial piece in the Catholic Voice that was very popular and very well received.

It raised some very valid points:

  • that participants in listening and dialog sessions should be respectful and use their discernment well;
  • that they should not be belligerent and dominating;
  • that they should be prayerful and use silence as a way to centre themselves.

But to one particular aspect of the piece… that we should get over ourselves and not be concerned with what we individually want… like the candle entering a darkened room, I beg to differ.

Considering what you want, is NOT mutually exclusive from what God wants. If you were asked what you most wanted in life and answered “World Peace”… it’s a pretty worthy wish.

Surely it’s important to hear the widest array of responses, throw them all on the table, before rejecting them.

The very question of “what God wants” is extremely hard to answer. If there was even one person out there that knew the answer we could skip the entire Plenary process. But in the absence of that, “what God wants” is a contested notion, and if figuring out what God wants is the entire purpose of the process, it shouldn’t be used as a tool to limit the discussion.

For the most part, I’m sure people wouldn’t throw in suggestions like “no more Masses” or “less commandments.” And if they did, well the sillier ones would deserve to land on the editing room floor.

But people need to know they will be truly heard. That offering a different perspective is ok, and not necessarily a bit radical.

The teachings of Christ were pretty radical for their day.

The question of the question

The phrasing of the Plenary Council question itself… What is God asking of the Church in Australia today… although a worthy question, has the potential to be used as a stop sign to stifle alternative and dissenting viewpoints.

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It’s a good question… it’s a great question… but if ever it’s used as a way to retain the status quo and block heartfelt, well-discerned ideas, then it kind of defeats the entire process of examining where the Church is at today.

I’ve heard people mention ideas like priests getting married… or women being ordained… and then heard them talked down or rejected with reference to “formation” and “catechism.”

I’ve heard people suggest we shouldn’t suggest ideas that the Church in Australia isn’t empowered to change without permission from Rome, but surely part of the process should be to pass on to Rome the more common thoughts of Catholic Australians.

The Plenary Council is a process of the Catholic Church. And that’s all Catholics. The whole 100%.

What next?

Quo Vadis? Whither goest thou? Where do we go from here?

Having established that the 88.5% are full current members of the Catholic Church, that’s not to say they should just sit back and do nothing.

This is not meant to be a celebration of laziness or a sanctioning of apathy.

It’s crucial to hear from them in the Plenary process, but if they want to really be involved, they need to make a bit of effort.

If any of the 88.5% want to have a say, they should also have a crack.  Do a bit. With rights come responsibilities.

If they aren’t going to Church at all… maybe attend a bit. If they’re going a bit, go weekly. Perhaps get involved in parish activities or community groups.

And by no means criticise the 11.5%.

Using a sporting analogy, that would be like casual bike riders pouring scorn on the Tour de France riders for working harder, making sacrifices and promoting the activities of cycling.

Using a biblical analogy, the 88.5% are the prodigal sons (and daughters)… not because they have been profligate and reckless in their spending but because they are welcome back. But that does not undermine the constant efforts of the committed ones keeping the place going.

In the end, in all organisations, people find different levels of involvement. And fortunately, that’s not a fixed point. It can grow. It can increase. But it starts with a first step.

The 88.5% are needed. Their input is needed.

And if their input comes as a matter of true soul-searching and discernment, it will be part of what God wants of his Church today.

But stop standing on the outside looking in. Step in.



Wordpress (11)
  • Colleen 5 years

    A great article, Chris.

  • Marie.Tom Wells 5 years

    We think this is an inspiring idea and the harvest
    may surprise many of us

  • Joseph Quigley 5 years

    The question for PC2020 put forward in my Deanery was: “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time.” For my group we took “you” to mean each one of us individually; as a member of a family;a member of a parish; a diocese; a nation. We were being asked for our personal thoughts. About what? ” What God is asking of us in Australia”. This assumes that we converse with God in some way. We pray on a regular basis – asking (on a daily basis?) for knowledge of His Will for us. It is not asking for a list of complaints,resentments, self-generated bright ideas, or other critics ideas they’ve read about but never talked over with God.
    By all means find out the views of non-practising Catholics but I think we would we entitled to ask them if they practise prayer.

    • Anthony 5 years

      Christ left sufficient guidance for Christians to discern what they must do throughout the ages in ever-changing circumstances and n the light of increasing knowledge about the world and all that is in it.

      It is up to us to decide how to apply that in Australia in the 21st century. 

      The Deanery question should not be understood to mean that there are “right answers” divinely determined and readily discernible.

      It is up to us collectively and individually to work out the issues that are important now, to set priorities and to try do something about them.

      The views of non-practising Catholics may be just as valuable as the views of those that practise. That is especially so, for example,  in the case of those that have abandoned the church in reaction to abuse within the church, or find themselves excluded from full participation owing to their marital status.

      • Joseph Quigley 5 years

        Hi Anthony! I happen to believe the Deanery question was awkwardly worded. Quite a few Catholics I know wouldn’t think about what God’s asking them for very much at all – except maybe send their kids to Catholic schools. I also think that we ought to have been informed about the status of Plenary Councils in Canon Law. It is all very well “to let a hundred flowers bloom” as it were but if some are going to be considered weeds by the Bishops (or the Vatican Curia), what’s the point?

  • conor 5 years

    Good thoughtful article—just the sort that Catholic Voice should be publishing to stimulate interest in the Pastoral Council.
    Why not a series where different points-of-view are aired and challenged? So,I’d be inviting Joseph Quigley to write an article that expands on his reply and have it side-by-side with Chris’one. Other examples could be pieces from Fr Tony Percy and Fr Peter Day, or Bishop Pat and Gerard Henderson, or Marlyn Hatton and Angela Shannon.
    Of course, to ensure that many voices are heard, it would be essential to re-open Letters to the Editor in the Voice — something that the diocesan leadership seems reluctant to do.

    By the way, can someone tell us whether the Diocesan submission to the PC has been finalised, what comments were received on the draft version, and when will the final document be sent to the PC secretariat

    • Joseph Quigley 5 years

      Thank you for your suggestion, Conor, but I would to need to pray a lot more before expanding on, and organising, the ideas that are spinning around in my head about PC2020. However I notice Professor Emeritus John Warhurst has commented “a very thoughtful article which raises many important points.” He, I’m sure, would be able to bring some academic clout to the arguments in favour of much needed reform in several areas of the Catholic church in Australia at this time.

    • conor bradley 5 years

      Apologies. I meant Plenary Council,not Pastoral Council,in my reply. Although we do need the latter too in this diocese! Ironically, there was one established after Vatican 11 with both clergy and laypeople, but it seemed to eventually disappear.

  • Grace 5 years

    I was a “relaxed” Catholic for many years.   Never lapsed. Simply relaxed. 

  • John Warhurst 5 years


    Thanks for a very thoughtful article which raises many important points.
    John Warhurst

  • Beth Gibson 5 years

    Thanks for this article Chris. It speaks of a person who is not afraid to ask the difficult questions and not find easy answers! As someone who has ‘moved in and out of the church’ a few times over many years, I can confirm that many people who are ‘out’ or ‘lapsed’ are indeed faithful and searching and have a profound regard for the community of the church. It can seem at times that it is the ‘official’ church that has moved, rather than the person!! My hope is that we can all use this opportunity to really seek a way for us as church in Australia to be a prophetic voice and live out the message of Love that Jesus brought into our world. Our actions will show people who we are, and what we believe and give priority to. Thanks again!