Putting Faith in the Facts and Figures
Reprinted with permission of the Townsville Bulletin.
Every five years, Australia holds a Census. And every five years, the Australian Bishops, through their Melbourne-based Pastoral Projects Office, acquire a substantial amount of data from the Census.
Census data can tell us a good deal about the demographic characteristics of the Catholic population of Australia and how it differs from the rest of the Australian population in terms of things like age, educational levels, occupation, countries of origin and socioeconomic status.
According to Australia’s most recent Census, which was carried out in 2001, the Diocese of Townsville had a Catholic population of 74,140, representing 29.4 per cent of the total population of just over a quarter of a million. There were 5090 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics in the diocese, making Townsville the fifth largest diocese in terms indigenous Catholic population.
The largest numbers of Catholic immigrants have come to the diocese from Italy, the United Kingdom, the Philippines and New Zealand, with the last two countries by far the largest sources of Catholic immigrants in the 10 years from 1991 to 2001.
Census data helps keep track of how broad social changes affect the Catholic population, for example, with respect to the number of couples in de facto relationships or the proportion of Catholics marrying non-Catholics.
Census data is also an excellent planning tool and can help dioceses make decisions about such things as the location of new Catholic schools and aged-care facilities.
It also helps in determining what pastoral services are required to meet the needs of the Catholic people in the diocese, for example, through the provision of migrant chaplains for Catholic immigrants.
Most census data acquired by the Church is acquired at parish level, enabling a comprehensive demographic profile to be created for every parish in Australia.
The profile is an excellent tool for a parish to use in evaluating how well it is serving the local Catholic population and how well it is linking in to the wider community.
It can help in setting pastoral priorities by identifying, for example, that the parish has large numbers of Catholics living alone, or in one-parent families, or in low income households, or who do not speak English well.
Finally, it can also help dispel outdated misconceptions about the parish by showing that what might have been true once has now changed.
Census data can only be acquired for each parish if all the parish areas are defined in terms of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ basic building block, the census collection district.
A collection district is the area covered at the time of the Census by one census collector and usually amounts to about 200 households in cities and towns.
In each diocese, one person is responsible for ensuring that all the collection districts in the area covered by the diocese are allocated to the correct parish and in Townsville Diocese this is the task of the Diocesan Director of Parish Life and Ministry, Len Horner.
Since the Census does not ask any questions about one’s beliefs or religious practices, census data tells us nothing about what Catholics believe or who goes to Mass.
For answers to those questions, other sources of information, including the 2001 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) are used.
The NCLS results for Townsville show that Catholics who attend Mass are much more likely to be older, female, university-educated and married or widowed than the Catholic population in general.
This article first appeared in the Townsville Bulletin, 19 August 2004