EDMONTON (CCN) — Contrary to some analyses, organized religion is doing well in Canada, with the Catholic Church being the main player, says Reginald Bibby, one of the country’s leading experts on social trends in religious practice.
In his new book, Canada’s Catholics, which he co-authored with pollster Angus Reid, Bibby says Catholics are living in a time characterized by vitality and hope.
Drawing on results from a major new cross-Canada survey of 3,000 Canadians that includes more than 1,000 Catholics, Bibby and Reid show that the church has grown continuously, thanks in part to immigration.
As well, Catholics are exhibiting a remarkable tenacity to hold on to faith.
Even when they disagree with the church on issues like sexuality, assisted suicide or abortion, they remain Catholic.
“There is lots of diversity of thinking among Catholics, but at the same time there is tremendous durability in that Catholics continue to believe they are Catholics,” Bibby said in an interview.
“They are tenacious in the sense they are not inclined to abandon Catholicism; they go on thinking they are Catholics.”
Catholics, who were outnumbered by Protestants until 1961, today comprise about 40 per cent of the Canadian population, “making them easily the largest religious group in the country.” Protestants are now a distant second.
“Without question, the Catholic Church is the country’s biggest religious player,” Bibby says. “Consequently, to a large extent, as Catholicism goes in Canada, so goes religion as a whole in the country.”
The survey shows that significant numbers of Catholics, particularly in Quebec, continue to identify with the faith and value it. Some 80 per cent attend mass “at least once in a while,” in addition to funerals and weddings. Yet many don’t feel the need to be active members.
“Contrary to the gloom and doom that often characterizes the way people interpret religion generally in Canada we say that we’ve got surprising findings on vitality and hope,” Bibby said.
“There is a lot of life evident in the Catholic Church in Canada among average Catholics. That’s not just outside Quebec but in Quebec as well; it’s right across the country.”
Bibby holds the board of governors’ research chair in sociology at the University of Lethbridge. Over the past four decades, he has monitored social trends in Canada through national surveys of adults and teenagers. He has a number of books dealing with religion in the country.
Bibby wanted to do something comprehensive on Catholics and the opportunity came when Angus Reid mentioned he was planning to carry out a national survey on religion in 2015.
“This was really a conscious effort to generate data on enough Catholics so that we could offer a good reading as to where Catholics are at this point in time,” Bibby explained. “This is not a book on the Catholic Church but is really a book on where the average Catholic is and their thinking and their behaviour at this point in time.”
The general sense was that religion was winding down in Canada, that involvement was decreasing and that there was considerable growth among people with no religion.
It wasn’t a positive story as the 20th century was wrapping up.
“What we are seeing now is just almost the opposite, almost the antithesis of that,” Bibby explained.
“When you look at immigration growth, drawing on Stats Canada data between 2000 and 2011, for example, the number of Catholics who arrived in Canada from other countries is utterly outstanding: 478,000 new Catholics.”
According to Bibby, people coming to Canada are having a tremendous impact on Catholic life here. “So anyone who is looking on and saying ‘It’s just about over; Catholics are just not attending, the churches are full of old people,’ I’m saying those people simply are out to lunch.
“They didn’t understand what was going on globally and what the implications would be for denominations like Catholicism when these people would come to Canada.”
Immigration provides a tremendous potential for Catholicism in Canada, Bibby maintains. “The numbers are readily there. In the foreseeable future, there is going to be an ongoing infusion of new Catholics coming into the Catholic camp across the country. Immigrant churches are very, very strong.”
The researchers also found average Catholics are receptive to greater involvement if that involvement has an impact on their lives. “What that means is people are looking for something that enriches their lives.”