Philippa Martyr: Our giant credibility problem

Women look at a new monthly women’s insert called “Women-Church-World” in the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano newspaper during a news conference at the Vatican in this 2012 file photo. The newspaper insert has now turned into a monthly magazine with the same name. Photo: CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

The recently-released Australian Catholic Mass Attendance Report 2016 provides us with some raw material for a good discussion about why Mass attendance rates might be so low and still dropping, even though they have now steadied.

I wanted to draw attention to one of the statistics in particular – the rate of women attending Mass in Australia.

Overall, women’s attendance rates have fallen to around 14 per cent – still higher than men, but much lower than they have been before.

But both the women’s and the men’s rates of attendance have fallen at the same speed over the last 20 years.

There’s no detectable gender effect – we can’t point to anything in particular that might have made men fall away faster or slower than women.

I’m saying this because eager minds will set to work and will begin grinding out the usual boilerplate about ‘inclusivity’ and ‘ministry’ and hinting that if just women were a little bit more included in everything Catholic, we’d reverse this trend.

We won’t. And I can say that with conviction because for the last 20 years, women’s formal inclusion in the Church has skyrocketed.

There are now more women in diocesan positions of authority, in Catholic education, on parish councils, being leading theologians, working in university departments, and anywhere else you can think of, than ever before.

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And yet the one place they’re apparently not so keen to be is at Mass on Sundays. We don’t have data on why anyone’s rates of attendance are dropping, but I have a solid theory based on some data.

We know from the data that most people at Mass are women, and also that they’re mostly over 60 years old. I think that over the last 20 years, those faithful old widows and flower ladies and church cleaners have gradually departed for a place where they won’t be asked to do anything except worship God.

People can and do die. Old Catholics die. And they’re not being replaced. This includes women.

There are a handful of women in Australia – mostly allied with fringe groups with imaginary membership numbers – who want to be ordained as deacons, and possibly as priests.

Some would like their husbands to be ordained, or to marry men who are already priests.

They’re welcome to their opinions (and their men friends). But it’s hard to imagine that if they were given their own way, this tiny group of misfits would spearhead a great feminine spiritual revival in Australia. Most of them are well past retiring age.

What we can see from the data is that both women and men in Australia have simply found better things to do with their time on Sundays, at more or less the same rate as each other.

We know this already from previous studies: that people stop coming to Mass because they no longer believe they have to, because they think they have better things to do with their time and because they don’t really believe much of what the Church teaches.

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It’s a credibility problem, not an inclusivity problem.


Wordpress (15)
  • Sheelah Egan 3 years

    I was once a member of the maligned group of “misfits”. I am not a misfit. I have been a very loyal and active member of the Catholic Church with all its faults for all of my eighty seven years. I am appalled at the lack of charity and the ignorance shown by this writer. I do wonder if she(?) has given as many hours as I have given to active participation in traditional and quite conservative activities of the church in Australia 

    • Philippa Martyr 3 years

      Hi Sheelah – I had no idea this article had been syndicated, or else I would have replied earlier.
      Good for you for still turning up and being active in the Church. I’m only 52, so I don’t think I can come close to the hours you must have put in, but hopefully I will make it to such an age myself.
      You’re absolutely right; I really do lack charity, and it’s one of my besetting faults. I’m sorry you took offence. The ‘misfits’ I referred to are the tiny group of very vocal women who insist on pushing for women’s ordination.

  • Fay Padarin 3 years

    I’m not sure who is the greater “misfit” you or those you refer to; a very inappropriate comment in this day and age, it adds nothing to your argument, in fact it down grades it.

  • Leon Trainor 3 years

    I love Philippa Martyr’s work and this has been a chance to catch up with more than one delightful article.

  • Beth Gibson 3 years

    I am not surprised no one has been willing to put their name to this article. It is an appalling commentary on women and why we find it so hard to be part of the formal church and why so many of us can no longer summon the strength and hope to keep trying. How dare he/she use terms such as ‘tiny group of misfits’! The author seems to think the point of working towards full inclusivity for women is to increase numbers in the pews on Sundays. It is not about the numbers! It is about creating a church that is fully reflective of the amazing love and creativity and generosity of our God, and this cannot be achieved while ever there are roles and places in the church where more than half its members are not welcome! I trust the Daily Voice will very soon publish an article that has a more accurate reflection on women and the church, and does not regard older women as  merely’ faithful old widows and flower ladies and cleaners’. Be warned – it is is not wise to antagonise such a vibrant group in the church (of which I am one)! 

    • Mary Besemeres 3 years

      I agree with you Beth (and Sheelah): the point is not how many bums on seats/pews there are, but what sort of church we are part of. And one where women are relegated to the margins – never given the chance to shape church teaching or practice on an equal footing, let alone lead a parish – is not reflective of Gen Y or X generations’ experience or outlook, hence lack of appeal to younger women. Jesus was revolutionary, scandalous, in affirming the full worth of women, children, so-called sinners, foreigners, calling people to love one another as fellow children of God. The conservatism of many in the Church is more akin to that of the scribes and priests of Jesus’ time than it is to Jesus’ own teaching.

    • Philippa Martyr 3 years

      Hi Beth – I didn’t know the Catholic Voice had run this piece from January, or else I would have replied to you then. I am the author, and happy to be acknowledged as such. I don’t think you and I will ever agree on the role of women in the Church, but I’m happy to leave it at that.

  • Susan Swift 3 years

    It is with much sadness that I read the article on attendance at Mass.
    With COVID-19 as well, it adds to the many changes that the Church has to face. The lack of attendance impacts on the finances of parishes So what is the alternative & where do we start. So many questions without answers. But the most important goal should be how to attract people back to mass. I can only relate my personal experience. Our previous parish priest said mass in 1/2 hour, read a 2 minute prepared sermon & allowed the acolytes to help as much as possible. He was truly loved & respected. The congregation included young & old, male & female & so all these factors contributed to a vibrant parish. He has now retired & the attendance at mass has plummeted. Surely the leaders should promote best practice, consult/ involve all within a parish from schools to aged care on what mass should look like in 2021.

  • Joe 3 years

    Nailed it Philippa! This article really resonated with me and where I think the Church is at in this moment in time. Our credibility problem means that the world doesn’t take what we teach seriously, because we ourselves don’t and this won’t change until we have the self-respect to back our own long-held beliefs.

  • Gavin O'Brien 3 years

    I am a 70+’s “Irish tribal” Catholic.I attended catholic schools in the days of Eris O’Brien. I am married to a practising Catholic.From my vantage point over four decades as an Acolyte, I have witnessed a rapidly changing demographic in my own Parish. In 1990 if you arrived ‘just in time’you would be lucky to have a seat. Before the Virus Pandemic, if you were late, you had a very wide choice;now quite restricted due to government mandated attendance limitations numbers are the lowest I have seen.I observed the decline in attendance of young couples and their children. Almost all Anglo-Irish parishioners are in my age bracket, the younger attendees are from Filipino, Kerala or Sri Lankan origins
    None of my adult children attend Mass despite Catholic Education at considerable financial cost. None of my grandchildren attend.Yet all were baptised as infants.
    I taught at Catholic Schools along with my wife for a cumulative total of seventy years in Canberra.
    I noticed the drop off some thirty years ago.It has accelerated since, My understanding is irrelevance to modern life is the reason , particularly of young people. In my younger days fear of hell was often a big incentive to attend.I can recall many “hell and damnation” sermons!

    • Gabrielle 3 years

      Gavin I love your replies in Eureka Street and skimmed through this to see if you had made a comment. My comment appeared for a day and then disappeared because My challenge is understanding those who are supposed to ‘break open the word’. I am old and deaf, use hearing aids and cannot understand many of the sermons which are supposed to enlighten my religious behaviours. Many of my peers have found other ways to get spiritual nourishment. Please tell your wife to join WATAC via Andrea Dean Your comments above are almost mine. I did not teach at Catholic schools, because I was not a suitable person, so I taught at CIT at NSW prisons.

  • Bek 3 years

    I agree with Dr Martyr that we don’t have an inclusion problem in the sense of women needing greater status in the Church or anything like that. I am not convinced that a “credibility” problem is the root cause of the alarming attendance/participation rate reduction either, although it’s definitely a symptom.

    I think the root cause of the problem is ENTIRELY found in relationship. Relationship with God, and relationships with each other. 

    If any of us are getting worked up about roles and status then we have lost sight of the fact that our dignity is grounded in the reality that we were created in imago dei.

    If any of us are feeling excluded it is probably because there’s gotta be a group for this and a group for that (eg mothers group, life begins at 50, youth group, etc) and if you don’t fit the criteria for membership in a given group, you’re left out in the cold. If you DO for the membership criteria then you hang out with those people and rarely look beyond your own cohort. This isn’t authentic community! We have forgotten how to relate with people who aren’t exactly like us within the church!

    Love God with all your mind, with all your heart and with all your soul, and love your neighbour as yourself. If we focus on living this – really living it – our community would be more attractive and inclusive and our concerns about status or leadership and control would simply fall away in the face of the awesome reality that our Creator invites us into relationship with Him, that He loves us so very much that He would have shed every last drop of His blood for any given one among us if we were the only person who needed saving. 

    In the face of that, doesn’t obsessing about status, leadership opportunities or the role of women in the liturgy seem rather small and petty?

    Dr Martyr – great food for thought! Obviously I differ slightly in my take on the problem but we need to be talking about this for sure! Thank you for writing this article!

    • Philippa Martyr 3 years

      Bek, I do agree with you. It’s the poverty of our relationships with Jesus Christ that brought us here. And a terrible sameness. And a certain selectivity about just which marginalised people we choose to reach out to. Some are currently more fashionable than others.

      As an unmarried, childless 52 year old, I know firsthand what it’s like not to fit into a parish – or for that matter, a world – designed for married couples with children. I’ve dealt with this by working at it consistently for about 30 years, with the result that I have well and truly found my place in the Church, and I intend to stay firmly here.

  • Victoria 3 years

    Wow. Well this is awkward. This article resonates too well. I work in a very large corporate Catholic organisation. We have the opportunity to attend Mass daily. Can you guess who actually goes? Yep: 3 young men, the male CEO and myself…..out of 65 people, with a majority women! This breaks my heart.
    As much as I agree with Bek (above), I think the root cause is that we do not fully understand the Eucharist. If we knew that in fact, this is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Man Who came from Heaven to die for us, we would be at Mass everyday!
    The lack of knowledge/awareness about the aspect of our faith that separates us from every other religion in the world is deeply saddening.
    When I question females who are in leadership roles in the Catholic Church, on the True Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, it is disturbing to see people avoid the question.
    We then make ourselves a god. Too many of us determine the obligations of being Catholic, by the amount of effort we wish to put in…
    To reconcile this, all of us who read this article, and it’s comments, could we each say a Hail Mary to ask for the gifts of Grace to be holy women? To lead men through the example of Our Lady. Surely if we do this, we will have no problems in building up the Church once more. God bless you all.

    • Philippa Martyr 3 years

      Victoria, that’s a lovely response. Thank you so much.