Catholic Religious Institutes in Australia

In 2008, the National Council of Catholic Religious Australia commissioned the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Pastoral Research Office to survey all Catholic Institutes of Clerical Religious, Religious Brothers and Religious Sisters in Australia. The work was commissioned to get an up-to-date picture of the membership, to consider trends for the future, and to understand more fully the important role that Catholic religious play in the Australian Church and society. Not since 1976 had there been a comprehensive study of religious institutes or personnel. The 1976 study asked major superiors to complete a ‘Religious Personnel Record Card’ for each member of the order. The 2009 study was based on a survey of religious institutes, not of the individual members of the orders or congregations.

At the start of 2009, there were around 160 Catholic religious congregations, orders, societies and associations in Australia, with a total membership of around 8,400. Religious sisters made up 70 per cent of the total, with clerical religious (religious priests) making up 19 per cent, and religious brothers 10.5 per cent. By comparison, the previous study conducted in 1976 showed there were 17,029 religious, although membership numbers had already peaked in 1966 at 19,413.

The report indicates that the decline in membership will continue. Congregations have struggled to attract new members. Significantly, most new members have come from overseas or from migrant communities in Australia.

Although many religious people consider that one never really retires from religious work, just over one-quarter (26.1%) were described as ‘fully retired’. Given that 26.6 per cent were 80 years or over that is remarkably low. The reality for many religious people is that retirement means reducing the workload, never giving it up completely. Indeed, many “retired” religious people are still actively and energetically involved in their congregation and local communities.

As a consequence of declining numbers, the last decade saw much change in arrangements for the ownership, governance and operation of institutions owned by Catholic religious congregations. Between 1999 and 2009, more than 50 institutions previously owned by religious congregations were sold or closed. Ownership or governance was transferred to another congregation or Church agency in a further 60 cases. The report indicates that there will continue to be much change in the years ahead. Some of the congregations have lay partner associations

The reality that the report shows is an ageing and decreasing population of religious people, declining numbers entering religious life, and a future that looks bleak.

What will be the shape of religious life in years to come? Will it continue to evolve and adapt as the need arises, as it has over the last few decades, or will the decline become more rapid leading to eventual extinction?

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 1, Pages 6-7

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