By Reginald W. Bibby
Charting religious trends in Canada over the past 50 years has been a fascinating experience. Like the announcer who is calling the game from the booth, I have watched a wide range of church leaders down on the field bask in the heady numerical glory days of the late 1960s, only to become less buoyant as the numbers started dropping in the 70s.
From the 1980s onward, it became clear that the Christian church was starting to lose badly. By the end of the century, Mainline Protestants had conceded defeat, while evangelical leaders were determined to at least have prevailing churches, score a few runs and keep things at least somewhat respectable. But the game was clearly out of reach.
Looking back, all of us were pretty myopic. We thought that as Canada went, so went religion in Canada. So it was that we took our religious trends lead from what was happening in the Mainline Protestant domain – the United, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. To the extent that evangelical groups were showing occasional signs of life, those of us in the booth saw such singles and walks as anomalies in need of explanations. Putting things in perspective, we looked to the secularization tide that allegedly had swept Europe, and conceded that our time had come.
The reading was all so clean and clear. Not much left to say, not much left to do, except – to borrow a well-worse phrase from the American semi-south – “to keep on keeping on.”
Well, turns out most of us were wrong.
We looked to the Protestant Mainline when we should have been looking at the Catholic church. We looked at Europe when we should have been looking at the entire planet.
Today, there is a global religious revival taking place. Christianity and Islam are growing at unprecedented rates that are translating into mind-boggling numbers. Enlightened religious demographers at the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC tell us that, by 2050, there will be close to 3 billion Christians and 3 billion Muslims around the world. In China alone by that time, there could be anywhere from 70 to 100 million Christians. The big numerical winners? Catholics – who grew from 500 million to one billion between 1950 and 2000, and Pentecostals – who grew from essentially 0 in 1900 to half a billion by 2000.
And guess what? The world is coming to Canada.
As a result of Canada having to stabilize its population by opening its doors to immigrants, people from around the world will be arriving in unprecedented numbers. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Catholic church. In the first decade or so of the 21st century, close to half a million new Catholics came to Canada. Note that they didn’t have to be recruited; they arrived as Catholics. Not a bad infusion – given that the numbers in that ten year period alone were similar to the total number of Baptists and Pentecostals, and exceeded the number of people who are Lutheran or Presbyterian, Buddhist or Jewish.
You want talk about megachurches? Then look at the Catholic church explosion. In Toronto, for example, the Archdiocese has opened a new church with seating for 1,000 people once a year for approximately the past 15 years. Out west, in cities like Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge the problem is not filling pews; the problem is finding enough pews to seat people.
What’s more, contrary to widespread gossip, the Catholic church leads the Canadian religious league when it comes to retaining its people. Outside Quebec, 77% of Canadians who were raised Catholic continue to identify themselves as Catholic. In Quebec, where the rumour is that young people are leaving the church, that intergenerational retention level is 88%.
Yes, there is no question that the Catholic church has its problems with large numbers of its people inclined to practice what we have referred to for some time as religion à la carte.
- Only about 15% are regular weekly attenders with the level 22% outside Quebec and only 8% in Quebec.
- Large numbers opt for highly individualistic expressions of theology and morality. But the loyalty of people who say they are Catholic is not in doubt.
- Nor is belief – some 85% believe in God and 75% in life after death, while 55% report that they pray privately at least once a month (about 25% daily).
- What’s more, 40% of Catholics say their lives are being strengthened by their faith, half claim that they have experienced God’s presence, and some 25% maintain that presence daily to weekly.
The central question facing Catholic church leaders is how to respond to all this. The old cliché holds: with great opportunity comes great responsibility. Angus Reid and I have no illusions about having all the answers. But we do offer leaders a range of possibilities to consider.
Christianity, led by Catholicism, is experiencing considerable vitality globally and, with the help of a robust level of immigration, in Canada as well. Let no one be mistaken: in Canada, the big religious player is the Catholic church. And as the Catholic church goes, so goes religion in the country.
Evangelicals need to be on top of these important global and national developments. We invite you to “Read all about it” in Canada’s Catholics!
Reginald W. Bibby holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge. Read Faith Today’s 2015 interview with Reg Bibby. Subscribe to Faith Today and tap into our popular Christmas gift deal.