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Study: Australia’s young Catholic women trend conservative

A study has found striking generational differences among Catholic women in Australia.

A session of Australia’s Plenary Council in July 2022. Screenshot from @plenarycouncil1161 YouTube channel.


An 84-page summary of Australian responses to the International Survey of Catholic Women — described as one of the most extensive surveys of Catholic women ever undertaken — concluded that “older respondents were more supportive of reform and change than their younger counterparts across most themes, with younger respondents more likely to convey conservatism.”

Commenting on the age-based differences, the report’s co-author Tracy McEwan told the Sydney Morning Herald: “There has been a push back towards conservatism. I think that’s been impactful for young adults in the Church.”

But McEwan, a theologian and sociologist of religion and gender at the University of Newcastle, Australia, said that women of all ages voiced disappointment and frustration with the Church.

The summary, based on responses from 1,769 women in Australia who took part in the survey in March-April 2022, noted that there were “significant differences between age groupings” in responses to questions about Church reform.

“In open responses there was a large group of mostly older respondents who prioritized reformation of the Church and its teachings via dialogue with ordinary Catholics and the secular world,” said the summary, which was made public Sept. 12.

“By contrast, there was a smaller, younger cohort of respondents who rejected any modernization of the Church and understood reform as a return to orthodoxy and tradition, including the TLM [Traditional Latin Mass].”

Researchers said that a majority of respondents supported the priestly ordination of women — declared a sacramental impossibility  by Pope John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and since affirmed by Pope Francis — but “older respondents were a lot more likely to agree with the ordination of women than younger respondents.”

They said that younger age groupings were also “a lot less likely” to support the use of gender-inclusive language in the liturgy and Church documents.

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The research also showed that a “smaller, younger cohort claimed to support greater respect for ‘tradition,’ including the continuation of the TLM, Eucharist adoration, and more reverent liturgy.”

“Some young respondents spoke passionately about the importance of traditional practices and the impact of the TLM on their faith,” the report’s authors commented, quoting a young Catholic woman who said: “The Church needs to re-introduce the missal of 1962 and the Traditional Latin Mass and rites and rituals.”

The report concluded that “older respondents were significantly more likely to support the full inclusion and respect of LGBTIQA+ persons than younger respondents.” 

There were strong age-based variations also in responses to the statement “Remarriage after civil divorce should be allowed.” The report said: “Older respondents were a lot more likely to strongly agree or agree with the statement than younger respondents.”

While most Australian respondents backed the statement that clericalism is “damaging the Catholic Church,” younger women were less likely to agree or strongly agree with it.

“Agreement ranged from about half (52%) of those aged 18 to 40 years to 94% of respondents aged over 70 years,” researchers said.

Although they found strong overall support for the statement “Catholic social teaching is a good resource for social justice action,” researchers observed that “a small group of predominantly younger respondents criticized Catholic social teaching and action as a politicization of faith and doctrinal teaching.”

Similarly, there was broad support for the Church engaging in “climate action,” but “a group of mostly younger respondents expressed opposition to the idea that climate and ecological concerns should be addressed by the Church.”

The report quoted one younger respondent as saying: “We as a Church have forgotten the supernatural elements of our faith. We are not a social justice or climate change Church. We must hold fast to the truth no matter how unpopular.”

The findings follow the conclusion of a plenary council held by the Church in Australia in which many of the same issues and divides emerged during at times heated and contentious debates and votes which were eventually resolved through a series of compromise motions. 

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The Australian report follows the publication of an 88-page analysis of the worldwide findings of the International Survey of Catholic Women.

The report, written by researchers based at the University of Newcastle, was based on 17,200 responses from Catholic women in 104 countries. Around 20% of respondents were aged 18 to 40. 

Researchers said that the age pattern found in the Australian data was echoed in other countries such as Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S., but was less evident in non-English-speaking countries.

The authors of the Australian summary said there were several possible reasons for the conservatism voiced by younger respondents. 

“One hypothesis is that, although there was diversity among respondents in younger age groupings, most young women who completed the survey were part of a highly committed subgroup of young Catholics,” they wrote. 

Another possibility, they said, was that “levels of conservatism are related to a combination of generational and life-stage effects.”

“For example, Vatican II and Humanae Vitae could have been impactful for older generations of  Catholic women,” they wrote. “Younger Catholic women may have been influenced by events such as World Youth Day.” 

They added: “In this instance, life-stage patterns suggest as Catholic women travel through the life course they gain lived experience of the complexities of faith practice, doctrine, and of life more generally.” 

“For example, older respondents’ higher level of agreement for reform may be related to a greater sense of frustration after many years of service and working for change in Church and parish life.”

Co-author Tracy McEwan personally presented the global research to Pope Francis at the Vatican in March. The research team has sent the report to every Catholic bishop in Australia.

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