Posts Tagged ‘religious’

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, FEB. 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- In recent years, religion has come to be seen as a problem or a threat to national or international security. One strategy for countering religious extremism has been to attempt to banish faith to the purely private sphere. This is a big mistake, according to a report released Feb. 23 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,” was authored by a task force of 32 experts, ranging from former government officials, religious leaders, heads of international organizations, and scholars.

Currently, the authors of the report argued, the U.S. government does not have the capacity to fully understand and effectively engage religious communities. There have been improvements in the past years in recognizing the role religion plays in global affairs, but this process is still far from complete.

For better or worse, religion is playing an increasingly influential role in politics, the report observed. The trend to globalization along with new media technologies has facilitated the spread of extremist views. This is not about to go away, the report noted, and it urged the U.S. government not only to improve its knowledge of religious communities and trends, but also to develop better policies to engage believers.

It’s important to realize, the report commented, that religion is not some kind of a secondary human experience without any bearing on political developments and that we can therefore ignore. “Religion — through its motivating ideas and the mobilizing power of its institutions — is a driver of politics in its own right,” the report affirmed.

The report also warned against viewing religion solely through the focus of terrorism, as this would lead to overlooking the positive role of religion in dealing with global problems and promoting peace.

It’s also necessary to move beyond a focus just on the Muslim world and to take into account other religious communities, the report said.

Global

While attention is often focused on the Middle East when it comes to the interaction between religion and politics the report pointed out that religion is a factor in many other countries.

China, for example, has a number of indigenous new religious movements such as Falun Gong as well as a rapidly-growing sector of legal and underground Christian churches and Muslim communities.

Buddhist monks have justified, and even promoted, conflict against Tamils in Sri Lanka, as well as marching against a repressive regime in Burma. Tensions between Christian and Muslims exist in Nigeria, and Indonesia, but also in European cities like London, Amsterdam, and Paris.

In India political debates are often influenced by different visions of Hinduism and the proper relationship of Hindus to other ethnic and religious communities.

The rise of Pentecostalism in Latin America and of Christian churches and preachers in Africa and Asia are other important religious developments that warrant attention, the report added.

And while religion has fomented bloody conflicts in countries such as Bosnia and Sudan, it has also promoted peace and forgiveness in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Alongside religious extremists there are other figures such as Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, the report noted.

“The many examples of religious contributions to democratization and of religious leaders who help provide foreign assistance, implement development programs, and build peace are emblematic of how religion can play a positive role everywhere in the world,” the task force affirmed.

Patterns

The members of the task force identified six principal patterns in the role religion plays in international affairs.

1. The influence of religious groups — some old and others new — is growing in many areas of the world and affects virtually all sectors of society.

2. Changing patterns of religious identification in the world are having significant political implications.

3. Religion has benefited and been transformed by globalization, but it also has become a primary means of organizing opposition to it.

4. Religion is playing an important public role where governments lack capacity and legitimacy in periods of economic and political stress.

5. Religion is often used by extremists as a catalyst for conflict and a means of escalating tensions with other religious communities.

6. The growing salience of religion today is deepening the political significance of religious freedom as a universal human right and a source of social and political stability.

In more concrete terms the report pointed out how these trends can present challenges in making policy decisions. For example, while the United States supports the spread of democracy, in some countries the introduction of popular elections could give greater power to religious extremists who often have anti-American views. So there needs to be a reconciliation between the promotion of human rights and democracy with protecting national interests, according to the task force.

The report also pointed out that the promotion of religious freedom as part of the foreign policy of the United States needs to be done in a way that is not seen as some kind of challenge by Western society on local religions or customs.

Recommendations

In dealing with religion’s role in public affairs the report advocated that the best way to counter extremism is through a greater engagement with religion and religious communities.

This means listening carefully to the concerns and fears they have and then entering into a substantive dialogue with them. At the same time it’s important not to overstep this dialogue by intervening in theological disputes or by trying to manipulate religion, the task force warned.

One of the most important things the United States must do, the report noted, is to learn how to communicate effectively. Therefore, in addition to listening to what religious communities are saying government needs to be more effective in presenting America’s own views. It’s also vital to keep in mind that actions often speak louder than words, so government policies must back up its media strategy, the report added.

Among the measures proposed in the report was the need to give a comprehensive instruction to diplomats, military personnel and other officials, on the role of religion in world affairs.

The report also recommended that the United States continue to promote religious freedom. “Imposed limitations on religious freedom weaken democracy and civil society, poison political discourse, and foment extremism,” the task force commented.

Healthy cooperation

Religion’s role in politics was a theme touched upon by Benedict XVI in his Jan. 11 address to the members of the diplomatic corps.

“Sadly, in certain countries, mainly in the West, one increasingly encounters in political and cultural circles, as well in the media, scarce respect and at times hostility, if not scorn, directed towards religion and towards Christianity in particular,” he commented.

Echoing the views expressed in the Chicago Council report the Pontiff said that: “It is clear that if relativism is considered an essential element of democracy, one risks viewing secularity solely in the sense of excluding or, more precisely, denying the social importance of religion.”

Such an approach, however, only creates confrontation and division, the Pope pointed out. “There is thus an urgent need to delineate a positive and open secularity which, grounded in the just autonomy of the temporal order and the spiritual order, can foster healthy cooperation and a spirit of shared responsibility,” he urged. A cooperation that will greatly benefit efforts to promote peace in the world.

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The Influence of Religion on American Politics

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, OCT. 1, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The volatile mix of religion and politics is heating up as the 2008 presidential election in the United States draws closer. Candidates are being quizzed about what will be the consequences of their beliefs, while the media and pressure groups are anxiously scrutinizing politicians and voters alike.

A book published earlier this year gives a useful background study of the relationship between faith and politics. “The Faith Factor: How Religion Influences American Elections” (Praeger), was written by John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Religion had a big impact in the 2004 presidential elections, argues Green. Members of conservative religious groups voted strongly for President George Bush. He adds, however, that the pejorative labeling of these groups as “fundamentalist” by some in the media is an unjustified oversimplification.

A 2004 survey showed that just 10.8% of the American adult population identified themselves as Protestant fundamentalists. Moreover, Green adds that a good number of these do not exhibit fundamentalist characteristics such as biblical literalism. Therefore, he puts at only 4.5% of the adult population those who could accurately be termed as fundamentalists.

Media attention tended to focus on just a few conservative Christian groups, without taking into account the full range of voters for whom religion and moral values played a part in determining how they voted.

Religion, in fact, has a long history of influencing politics in the United States. In the past, it was often linked to ethnic groups, such as the Irish Catholic involvement in big-city politics. In more recent times, many of the ethnic groups have assimilated into society, but membership of a religious denomination continues to play an important role in determining beliefs, values and voting patterns.

Active or passive?

There are also, however, divisions within religious groups, so they should not be regarded as monolithic blocs when it comes to voting, Green explained. One important factor in determining to what extent religion will influence voting patterns is the degree to which an individual is an active member of a religious group.

Thus, in terms of electoral behavior, a Catholic who is a regular Mass attendee has more in common with regular worship attendees in other religions than with less observant Catholics.

Another factor that has a strong influence in determining the extent to which religion will influence political behavior is the degree to which someone actively supports, by donating either money or time, a religious group. Whether an individual has an active prayer life is another important consideration.

Nonetheless, Green notes that religion is only one of many factors that help explain how someone votes. In reply to exit polls in the 2004 presidential elections, just under a quarter of voters did indicate that moral values were a priority for them in deciding which candidate to support. This category, however, comes only in third place, after foreign and economic policy, which people identified as priorities.

Religion will continue to be an important factor in coming years, Green predicts. Divisions over abortion, marriage and other moral values show no sign of diminishing. Moreover, political operators in both major parties are well aware of the need to mobilize religiously-oriented voters and will continue in their efforts to activate the faith vote.

Communion controversy

Within the Catholic world, a divisive issue in the religion and politics debate is how to treat Catholic politicians who are manifestly pro-abortion. A recent contribution to the question came from Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, in an essay published in Volume 96 of the canon-law journal Periodica de Re Canonica.

The article, titled “The Discipline Regarding the Denial of Holy Communion to Those Obstinately Persevering in Manifest Grave Sin,” noted the differences in opinion, including among bishops themselves, over whether support for anti-life legislation should disqualify a politician from receiving Communion.

After a detailed analysis of Church teaching on the question of Communion and those in grave sin, Archbishop Burke concludes that “a person who obstinately remains in public and grievous sin is appropriately presumed by the Church to lack the interior bond of communion, the state of grace, required to approach worthily the reception of the Holy Eucharist.”

A consistent public support of policies that are in grave violation of moral law, he pointed out, can indeed be classified as “gravely sinful.”

The archbishop clarified, however, that denying Communion in these circumstances should not be interpreted as a penal sanction against the person, but rather it is concerned with respect for the Eucharist.

The United States, Archbishop Burke commented, is a society that “canonizes” radical individualism and relativism, thus making it very difficult to apply sanctions such as denying Communion.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, if a bishop or priest preaches Church teaching on life matters, but does nothing when a Catholic who publicly supports anti-life legislation comes to receive Communion, “then his teaching rings hollow,” Archbishop Burke judged.

Too many Christians

Conflicts over religion and politics occur in many other countries, of course. In Australia, where national elections will shortly take place, Prime Minister John Howard and opposition leader Kevin Rudd recently addressed, via an Internet hookup, 770 churches across the country.

After their debate, Senator Lyn Allison, the leader of the Democrats, complained that there were too many Christians active in politics, reported The Australian newspaper on Aug. 10.

On Aug. 7, the Australian bishops published a brief statement to help guide Catholics in the national elections. The document focused on a number of issues that the bishops argued are of vital concern. Subjects such as respect for life, support for the family, education, health and the environment were among those raised.

“We encourage Catholics to look beyond their own individual needs and apply a different test at the ballot box — the test of the common good,” the bishops urged.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, another country preparing for national elections, on Aug. 23 the bishops reaffirmed the validity of a statement they had issued in April. Our Catholic faith, they stated, calls us to grow in our commitments as citizens. Christians should discover their vocation in favor of the common good, they recommended.

The document called for human life and the family to be protected. Poverty and inequality, along with a need to avoid excessive divisions within society, were other points mentioned.

Our faith in the risen Christ, the bishops stated, should motivate us to renew our lives and live them according to the principles of truth, liberty, justice and solidarity.

True justice

Benedict XVI also recently addressed these matters in a speech made Sept. 21 to participants of a meeting of Centrist Democrat International.

Justice is truly human, the Pontiff affirmed, “only when the ethical and moral vision grounding it is centered on the human person and his inalienable dignity.”

After referring to issues of the economy, safeguarding life and the family, the Pope warned that when truth or the family is undermined, then “peace itself is threatened and the rule of law is compromised, leading inevitably to forms of injustice and violence.”

Religious liberty is another vital issue to defend, he continued. “Openness to transcendence is an indispensable guarantee of human dignity since within every human heart there are needs and desires which find their fulfillment in God alone,” said the Pope.

The Church’s social teaching, Benedict XVI explained, is motivated by love for humanity and a desire to contribute to a world which respects the dignity and rights of all people. An objective all can share, even though they may not agree about the best way to achieve it.



“True Religious Education Leads to an Opening of Minds”

RATHFARNHAM, Ireland, SEPT. 29, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is the homily delivered by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, primate of Ireland, at the Mass on Tuesday marking the opening of the 2007-2008 school year.

* * *

Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland

Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham,
25th September 2007

I remember well the occasion on which I, as archbishop of Dublin, celebrated this annual Mass for the opening of the school year for the first time. It was a dark evening at the end of a dark rainy day. I remember well that the atmosphere at the Mass in the pro-cathedral was one of a certain tiredness and fatigue.

Then it came to the moment of the singing of the responsorial psalm and one of the young boy singers of the Palestrina Choir appeared, stood confidently at the microphone and began singing the psalm with a forceful, stunning voice, perfect diction and without the slightest sense of strain.

Suddenly from the missalettes, heads popped up, full of curiosity and attention. They were the heads of teachers shaken awake as only a good teacher can be by the immediate recognition of talent. You could see this in the expression of the faces of teachers. It was not just the recognition of talent, but recognition of talent that had been properly tutored and that was full of hope for the future.

There have been many words spoken and printed in these weeks about our educational system and its problems, its teething troubles and its challenges. I would like this evening to turn our reflection toward what is of excellence in our system and to render our thanks to God and to those who for years have been the protagonists of our education and for what they have achieved. We thank God above all for the talent of our young people recognized, encouraged, enhanced and indeed rejoiced in by our educational community.

The Gospel which has just been read is about vines. Vines are notoriously difficult plants to grow and tend. They grow slowly. They are highly sensitive to changes in the weather and the damage done in a few hours can take years to fully recover from.

Vines require much attention if their growth is to be successful and if the fruit of the vine is to be quality fruit. That is the task of pruning, which city people like me look on primarily as a process of breaking off unwanted shoots. The process is of course much more complex. It is not just about cutting off this or that particular branch. It is a real art, the art of trimming and tending the plant so that its growth potential becomes optimal. It is work which requires knowledge, technique and love.

Becoming a mature human person is something that is never fully achieved but is worked on over an entire lifespan. This applies to the pupils but also to teachers and also all of those in the school community. All require renewal. All are required to take a look at themselves and their role to see whether they are formed in such a way as to ensure — to continue with the analogy — optimal growth and productivity, to ensure that our children encounter an educational process which brings out the best in them.

Teaching, like any of the caring professions, is not just about technology, techniques and training. The prime instrument of any teacher is himself or herself.

I am constantly amazed by the dedication of our teachers I meet around this diocese, young and old. At a time when it is commonplace to accuse young people of being short on idealism, vision for life and responsibility, our young teachers belie that myth and they do it with a vengeance. I meet young teachers who opt immediately after college to go to the more problematic areas of the diocese; I meet teachers who at the end of their teaching career, after 30 or more years in the classroom, are filled with the same idealism they brought with them on their first day as teachers. I see teachers who began their careers in a world radically different from ours, as bright and attentive and creative as they ever were in addressing the needs of children today. I see how teachers, who could never have imagined the new configuration of the ethnic and religious make-up of our communities, have risen marvelously to the challenge, well before the pundits had even noticed what was going on in our society.

Our nation and everyone in it owes a debt of real gratitude to teachers. Whatever problems we encounter, we should never downplay what we have achieved in our school system, based on a collaborative model rooted in community. Where changes have to be made, let them be made and made in a timely fashion. But this requires that it be done in a reflective and systemic manner so that the final result will be to optimize our school system to face the challenges of today and tomorrow.

This is a challenge for all. It is a challenge which requires us to look at the facts as they really are and not to be driven by polemics or ideology. When in education, ideologies win the day, it is children and communities that pay the highest price. The fact is that Catholic schools in North and West Dublin, and indeed in many of the smaller country towns, cater for thousands of children of very different ethnic backgrounds and religions. They have done so quietly and effectively for many years — notwithstanding the undeniable challenges and tensions. Some commentators have evidently not been in our schools in recent times. In some cases comment has been offensive to teachers and management alike of Catholic schools which have been taking a leading role in integration.

Integration is a challenge for all. Integration is not just for the poor. It would be tragic and dangerous if the current debate were to lead parents to consider how they might “opt out” of integrated education by seeking schools that might not have broad ethnic mix. We all — including providers of Catholic education at primary and secondary level — have the responsibility to avoid a two tier or elitist education system.

The future requires working together. It is a challenge for our communities, for government, for local authorities, for Churches and other patron bodies, for boards of management and indeed for teachers themselves, for school principals, for teachers’ organizations and indeed for structures representing parents. Integration will only take place when we address the needs and interests of all. That will happen only when all of us can work together and rise above sectoral interests so that what emerges is of the greatest benefit for our young people.

I have already expressed my views on the way forward in a pluralist society and my willingness to follow through with a changing role for the Roman Catholic Church in Irish education. That will involve divesting much of the current presence of the Church in patronage, but it is not a cry of retreat.

There is a viewpoint which tends to look at religious education as something ideological, divisive and doctrinaire and perhaps not really a good thing for young people and certainly alien to what should belong to a school curriculum in a modern pluralist democracy.

The contrary is true. True religious education leads to an opening of children’s minds and helps them along the first steps to reflection on the meaning of their own lives and values. It stimulates that openness to the transcendent that encourages the young person to go beyond him or herself. It invites young people to experience the love of God which insists on love of one’s neighbor.

Religious values can be the best antidote to a culture of consumerism and superficiality. A religious sense will help the young person to break through some of the dominant patterns of reflection in our society. Religious education should help overcome the difficulty of understanding community and communion in the face of narrow individualism, or the difficulty of speaking about solidarity and gratuitous love in a market-dominated culture in which everything has its price and you get just what you pay for.

We give thanks to God for all that is good in our educational system. We pray that Jesus, who gave himself so that we could have life, will accompany and inspire us all as we give from the riches we have received so that future generations can flourish.



United States Publishes Annual Survey

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, SEPT. 23, 2007 (Zenit.org).- There has been progress toward reducing religious persecution and discrimination in the world, according to the latest annual report from the U.S. State Department.

The “2007 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom” was published Sept. 14. The 800-page report covers the 12-month period up to June 30, 2007.

During the press conference held to present the report, John V. Hanford III, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said that regarding the freedoms discussed in the report, much work still remains to be done “as far too many citizens of the world do not enjoy religious freedom.”

Hanford also defended the report against some criticisms made: “It’s important to note that our commitment to religious freedom is not an attempt to export simply an American approach to this issue.”

The ambassador pointed out that religious freedom is recognized as a basic human right by many international treaties, an obligation that many governments choose to ignore. “According to some estimates, half of the world’s people live under persecution or serious restriction of their religious freedom,” said Hanford.

During the press conference the question of Iraq was raised. The report itself admits that the turbulence and violence in Iraq impedes the government’s ability to protect religious freedom.

While the government itself is not generally involved in religious persecution the report does admit that some state institutions continue long-standing discriminatory practices against the Baha’i and Wahhabi Sunni Muslims.

Christian exodus

The State Department observed that the number of Christians in Iraq has suffered a sharp decline. The official census carried out in 1987 put at 1.4 million the number of Christians. By contrast, current estimates calculate the number of Christians at fewer than 1 million. In the 12-month period covered by the report at least 9 priests, along with other Christians, were kidnapped by Islamic extremists.

Terrorist attacks have made many mosques, churches, and other holy sites unusable, the report added, with many worshippers unable to attend religious services because of the threat of violence.

Saudi Arabia is another country with serious problems, according to the report. There is no legal recognition of religious freedom and the government continues to enforce a conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam.

“Scores of foreign workers and their family members were arrested for practicing their faith and deported,” the report stated.

There were, however, some small signs of improvement, according to the State Department. The Saudi government took some steps to review educational materials that attack other religions and measures were taken to control both extremist imams and the activities of the religious police, the mutawwa’in.

Nevertheless, the government continued to commit abuses of religious freedom, the report stated, with a number of people being detained for nonpublic, non-Muslim worship. There were also numerous reports of abuses by the mutawwa’in, against both Saudi citizens and foreigners.

Restrictions on conversion

Turning to Asia, the report commented that some state and local governments in India limit freedom of religion. So-called anti-conversion laws exist in some states. These laws place barriers on activity by minority religions that seek converts, and favor Hinduism. Four of India’s 28 states have such laws in force, and another two have enacted legislation that has not yet come into force due to the lack of regulations needed to implement the law.

What the report termed as “ineffective investigation and prosecution of attacks on religious minorities” has induced religious extremists to continue with violent actions.

The issue of conversion of Hindus or members of lower castes to Christianity remained highly sensitive, the report added. It also cited information from faith-based organizations, according to which there were at least 128 attacks against Christians in 2006. 

The situation is worse in neighboring Pakistan, where Islam is the state religion. The government took some steps to improve the situation of religious minorities in the past year, the report noted, but it added that serious problems still remain. 

Problems range from abuse by police committed against religious minorities, to discriminatory legislation and the failure by authorities to take action against extremists who intimidate members of minority religions.

During the period covered by the report authorities arrested at least 10 Christians on blasphemy charges. In fact, the report commented that freedom of speech is subject to “reasonable” restrictions in the interests of the “glory of Islam,” according to the country’s laws.

In addition, reports continue of forced conversions of religious minorities to Islam. With apostasy from Islam classified as a capital offense, the victim who is forced to convert is effectively trapped.

Growing tensions

One country where problems are on the rise is Venezuela. According to the report there were efforts by the government, motivated by political reasons, to limit the influence of the Catholic Church and missionary groups in some social and political areas. 

One instance cited occurred in January this year, when authorities announced they would withdraw the broadcast license of NCTV, a regional Catholic Church-affiliated network. An agreement was eventually reached that allowed the network to partially continue its activities. 

President Hugo Chavez, the report also noted, engaged in numerous rhetorical personal attacks against some Catholic bishops. He also warned the bishops to refrain from commenting on political issues.

Cuba, often taken by Chavez as a model, continues to lack religious freedom. According to the report, some religious figures who criticized the government’s totalitarian system in sermons were subjected to intense harassment. Security forces continued to carry out surveillance on people who worship in officially sanctioned churches, and in general the government “continued its efforts to maintain a strong degree of control over religion.”

The government continued to criticize the Catholic Church for refusing to register church and lay group publications with authorities. The Cuban conference of bishops, the report commented, has stated that the Church declines to register because registration would force it to cede control to the state regarding the content and format of church publications. In return, the state impedes access to printing by making equipment costly or placing restrictions on the sale of publications.

Catholic priests and other clergy were able to deliver sermons without advance screening by government censors, the report commented. Some of the sermons did make pointed criticisms, resulting in “intense harassment” by authorities against the clergy who dared to oppose the government.

Problems for minorities

In Russia, where the issue of human rights has come to the fore in recent times, conditions have improved for some religious minorities, according to the report. Nevertheless, obstacles continue due to the registration laws and a combination of xenophobia, racism and religious bigotry leads to discrimination against some groups.

This leads, for example, to difficulties in acquiring land or obtaining permits to build houses of worship. This particularly affects Protestant churches and non-Christian religions. The government also used counter-terrorism to commit serious violations of religious freedom against the Muslim population, the report added.

On a positive note the report said that racially motivated violent attacks against Jews decreased in the past year. Even so, anti-Semitism remained a serious problem, with reports of several anti-Semitic attacks on persons and synagogues.

While some improvements have occurred the report makes clear that religious freedom is still severely lacking in many countries.

 

 



 

Churches Face Challenge in Postmodern Culture

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, JULY 8, 2007 (Zenit.org).- With just a year to go before World Youth Day takes place in Sydney, data on religion from the 2006 national census in Australia reveals several challenges facing the Church.

The June 27 press release from the Australian Bureau of Statistics explained that Christianity remains the dominant religion in the country. Since the 1996 census the number of people reporting that they are Christian grew from around 12.6 million to 12.7 million. This is, however, a significant fall in terms of a proportion of the total population, from 71% to 64%.

The Catholic Church continues to be the largest Christian group in Australia. Since 1996 the number of Australians affiliated with the Catholic Church grew by 7% to 5.1 million. Nevertheless, this growth was not enough to keep the proportion of Catholics from declining as a proportion of the country’s overall population, from 27% in 1996 to 25.8% by 2006.

The Anglican Church is the second-largest group, accounting for 19% of the population. Their numbers are in decline with a 5% fall over the decade between the census surveys of 1996 to 2006. The fastest-growing Christian denomination was Pentecostal, increasing by 26%, to around 220,000 members.

Australia’s three most common non-Christian religious affiliations were Buddhism (2.1%), Islam (1.7%) and Hinduism (0.7%). Their numbers are growing strongly, with Hinduism more than doubling from 1996 to 2006, to 150,000. The numbers of Buddhists doubled in the ten-year period.

The number of nonbelievers also continues to grow. Since 1996, the number who stated they had no religion increased from 2.9 million to 3.7 million — boosting their proportion from 16.6% to 18.7% over the period 1996-2006.

New South Wales, whose capital Sydney will host World Youth Day, had the smallest proportion — 14% — of any of the nation’s main cities not affiliated with any religion. It is also the state with the highest proportion of Catholics, at 28.2% of the population.

Pentecostal boom

Pentecostals are also strong in New South Wales. From a small base, their numbers grew by no less than 48% in the state over the decade leading up to 2006, reported the Sydney Morning Herald on June 28. Among other groups Sydney is home to the Pentecostal Hillsong Church, which claims 19,000 members.

Its pastor, Brett Macpherson, commented that the number of Pentecostals was in all likelihood even greater than the census figures indicated, as some would have just ticked the more generic Christian box on the form. His comments came in an article on the census data published by the Australian newspaper June 28.

The newspaper also published an analysis by Bernard Salt of the situation regarding young people and religion. He commented that the proportion of believers aged 20-35 contracted by no less than 5% between 2001 and 2006. The latest census data, he added, suggest that people in this age group are much less inclined to hold traditional beliefs than were their age counterparts in the 1980s.

One interesting initiative to put young people in greater contact with religion was the launch of a national program to fund chaplains in schools. The National School Chaplaincy Program was launched by Prime Minister John Howard last October.

The program is voluntary and provides annual funding of up to 20,000 Australian dollars ($17,176) a year for both government and nongovernmental schools, according to a presentation of the scheme on the Web site of the federal government’s Department of Education, Science and Training. The government will provide up to 30 million Australian dollars ($25.7 million) a year for the next three years.

Education Minister Julie Bishop said that more than 1,500 applications were lodged around the country — around 15% of Australian schools, reported The Age newspaper May 30. After reviewing the applications, Prime Minister Howard announced that the government allocated funding to 1,392 schools for the first round of grants, reported The Age on June 27. Moreover, due to the high demand, he said that an extra 25 million Australian dollars ($21.4 million) in funds would be made available for the three-year program.

A reawakening

There is a reawakening of interest in religion and spirituality in Australia according to a book published last year by Monash University academic, Gary Bouma. In “Australian Soul,” he notes that Australia is a typical example of a secular, postmodern and post-Christian society. This does not mean, however, that it is irreligious, he argues.

Compared to the 1960s and 1970s, when secularism seemed triumphant, Bouma detects much more interest these days in religion and spirituality. Nevertheless, this is both good and bad news for the traditional churches, because much of this resurgence in religion is often not directed within the formal structures offered by established religion.

Studies of attendance at Catholic and Protestant churches, for example, show that regular churchgoers tend to be older and more likely to be female. One study revealed that the traditional Protestant congregations lost nearly half of those who were raised as young people in these churches.

Furthermore, the traditional predominance of Christianity is under challenge due to a burgeoning of other faiths, in part due to immigration, in part due to a growing desire for religious experimentation. Thus, not only have numbers of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims risen, but also those who declare themselves followers of New Age type spiritualities or even forms of paganism is on the increase.

A closer look at the situation of the Catholic Church came in another book published last year: “Lost!: Australia’s Catholics Today,” by Michael Gilchrist. The Australian experience after the Second Vatican Council was similar to that of many other Western countries, he commented, with severe inroads made due to the forces of secularism and relativism.

Moreover, declining numbers of priests and a severe decline in many of the religious orders, who staffed the Church’s schools, has notably weakened both parishes and Catholic education. Gilchrist also devoted considerable space in his book to describing the theological and liturgical experimentation that led to a marked dilution in Catholic doctrine.

Catholic renewal

Gilchrist suggested a number of steps to improve the state of the Church in Australia. These ranged from recommending strong leadership by the bishops, to renewing the Catholic identity of the Church’s schools and revitalizing devotion and liturgical life.

He also urged that efforts continue to promote vocations and ensure good formation in seminaries. Over the last decade or so substantial progress was made in this area and the seminaries that have undergone reforms are seeing a steady increase in numbers.

Even though the task ahead is difficult, Archbishop Philip Wilson, president of the Australian bishops’ conference is hopeful. In a speech given this April at a conference for Church administrators he declared certain optimism for the future of the Church. This is based, he explained, both on a conviction of God’s faithfulness, and also because he believes that there is openness in Western culture to receive the Gospel message.

Transmitting this message to today’s world also requires a sustained effort on our parts, he added. In part we can achieve this through living “faithful, vibrant, intelligent Christian lives,” Archbishop Wilson commented. Being able to do this will require a serious religious and moral formation.

To achieve this, the archbishop noted the importance not only of educating young people through the Catholic schools, but also of forming adults in their faith. Not easy tasks, but essential ones to ensure a healthy future for the Church.