VANCOUVER (CCN) — There’s a bumpy but promising road ahead for Catholic education, according to Canadian pollster and sociologist Angus Reid.
“There is every reason to believe, as we look in the future, that the demand for Catholic education will be strong and get stronger,” he told a crowd of 1,300 principals, teachers, and staff at the Catholic Educators’ Conference Feb. 10.
“Obviously there are a lot of tough issues that you’re going to have to navigate through as you look at the coming decades,” but “it’s not all bad.”
Since 1993, there’s been a lot of change in Canada. Fewer people are going to church, the public has a lower view of clergy, and there’s been a rise in “hostile atheism,” Reid said.
“When I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, atheists tended to be quiet people who sat off in a corner and would maybe have a philosophical discussion with you about the existence of God,” he said.
But in a 2015 poll on religion in Canada, the Angus Reid Institute found that while 30 per cent of respondents were inclined to embrace religion, 26 per cent were inclined to reject it.
“This is a group that is significantly larger than it was 30 years ago,” he said, arguing this group is also more likely to be more vocal about its negative views of religion.
The other 44 per cent fell somewhere in the “mushy middle.”
Other rising challenges include differing values and a growing list of contentious ethical issues. In a study with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last year, Reid found “we are in a society that does not consist of a single set of values.”
The study found Canadians put themselves in one of five categories: Cautious Skeptics (25 per cent), Free Enterprise Enthusiasts (22 per cent), Faith-Based Traditionalists (20 per cent), Public Sector Proponents (19 per cent), and Permissive Reformers (14 per cent).
Because of polarizing values, emerging issues such as transgenderism and assisted suicide are also difficult for Catholic teachers to navigate in the classroom, he said.
Recent polls, however, also indicate there is some good news for the Catholic Church in general and for Catholic education specifically.
“We are the most positively viewed religion in the country,” Reid said.
One year ago, one of his institute’s polls found that 49 per cent of respondents thought of Catholicism positively. The next closest groups were Protestantism and Buddhism at 44 per cent each, and Judaism at 30 per cent.
Pope Francis also had the respect of 75 per cent of respondents.
“Canadians are not as cut of from faith as statistics of church attendance would indicate,” he added.
Though church attendance has been dropping, Reid argued a better indicator of faith is how often Canadians pray.
“Prayer is in my view probably the single most important action that individuals take in terms of connecting themselves with some idea of a divine Creator who has an interest in their lives.”
In a national poll in 2016, Reid found 86 per cent of Canadians pray; 42 per cent do so once a week, and another 44 per cent do so about once a month. Only 15 per cent of respondents said they never pray.
An even more intriguing discovery, he said, was the impact of prayer during childhood.
“If you prayed as a child, the odds that you would pray later in your life is 90 per cent,” he said. By contrast, if a person did not pray as a child, there was an 80 per cent chance that person would not pray as an adult, either.
“Catholic educators have a tremendous responsibility to reinforce prayer,” he told the large audience of educators at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
“One magic thing you can do ahead of anyone else is instil a sense of prayerfulness and to deal with prayer as a fundamentally learned thing.”
A piece of bad news for public schools may also be good news for private schools. In a recent quarterly study on things like public education and the popularity of Canadian premiers, the Angus Reid Institute found 40 per cent of BC residents give public primary schools a poor or very poor rating.
This is not just a temporary dip due to recent teacher strikes. “B.C. has consistently tracked lower than other provinces on this particular measure,” Reid said.
“At no point in the last six years has the quality of primary education in B.C. has been perceived by 50 per cent of residents as being good or very good.”
That may mean there is a “promising future” for private schools, he said.
Msgr. Gregory Smith, pastor of Christ the Redeemer Parish, introduced Reid on stage and said the church needs access to public opinion research.
“The church needs to know contemporary reactions to ideas and events, whether they be Catholic or not,” he said, quoting a 1971 document from Vatican II.
“(Reid) has done more than any other Catholic in Canada, possibly in the English-speaking world, to provide the church and her members with the information needed to read the signs of the times,” he added.
Reid received a papal award medal in 2013.