New report breaks down Australian Catholic population

A new document from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference profiles a Catholic population which is increasingly culturally diverse.

By Joseph Tulloch

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has released a new report examining the Catholic community in the country, using data from the 2021 national census.

The document, released by the bishops’ National Centre for Pastoral Research, profiles a community which is shrinking and aging, but also becoming more culturally, linguistically, and ritually diverse.

Numbers and age

The report puts the number of Catholics in Australia at 5,075,910, almost exactly 20% of the total population of 25,422,788. This is a decrease of around 2.5 percentage points in five years – in 2016, 22.6% of respondents identified as Catholic.

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said that these figures “were not a surprise” given the “broad shift away from religious identification in Australian society”, although he admitted they were disappointing.

The Catholic population in Australia, moreover, is increasingly elderly: the median age for Catholics is 43, compared to 33 in 1996. The median age for all Australians is 38.

493,225 Australian Catholics (9.7%) live alone, while 342,034 (6.7%) require assistance with core activities.

Cultural and linguistic diversity

One of the report’s key findings is the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity of the Australian Catholic Church.

The bishops' analysis shows that 1,369,744 Australian Catholics, or 21.4% of the total number, were born abroad in a non-English speaking country, and 21.5% speak a language other than English at home. In 2006, these numbers were 17.9% and 19.2% respectively. .

The five countries supplying the largest amount of non-native English speaking Catholics are the Philippines, Italy, India, Vietnam, and Croatia (which was counted together with other countries from former Yugoslavia).

This increase in cultural and linguistic diversity is in line with national trends; the figures for foreign-born and foreign-language speaking Australian Catholics are close to the national averages

Eastern Catholic Churches

Since 1996, Eastern Catholics in Australia have been counted separately to Latin Catholics. This year, of the 5 million total Catholics in the country, 77,393 – or 1.5% - registered as belonging to the Eastern Catholic Churches. Of these, 47,003 were Maronite, 3,091 Melkite, 2,886 Ukrainian, 14,108 Chaldean, and 10,305 Syro-Malabar.

However, the real number of Eastern Catholics in Australia is probably higher; the report indicates that some likely ticked the standard “Catholic” box in the census, and were thus registered as Latin. In this regard, it is significant that just over 3% of Australian Catholics reported speaking languages traditionally associated with the Eastern Churches; 77,727 speak Arabic at home, 34,237 Assyrian/Chaldean, 38,288 Malayalam, and 2,967 Ukrainian.