The outlook for growth in the Catholic Church in Canada is good, says University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby. One major reason is changing immigration patterns that are bringing more people from traditionally Catholic regions


The outlook for growth in the Catholic Church in Canada is good, says University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby. One major reason is changing immigration patterns that are bringing more people from traditionally Catholic regions

July 18, 2011

What I have to report will come as a surprise to many Canadian Roman Catholics.

In recent years, many of you have grown accustomed to hearing that religion is in decline and that your numbers are dropping. The common portrait painted by the media is one of an aging Church whose golden years of large and vibrant congregations comprised of people of all ages is a thing of the past.

What's more, you've been told that the worst is yet to come. In the midst of all this, your morale has not exactly been boosted by constant reminders of the Church's failures in the form of residential schools and sexual abuse.

In the midst of such realities, it's understandable that many of you — as people who value faith and the Church — have assumed that you are part of a shrinking minority.

The news of decline has often had a debilitating effect and contributed to a mentality of retreat. If you and others are merely part of a dying religious remnant, the focus turns to sheer survival. There is little energy to think big, to consider and pursue new possibilities.

We now know that such negative and discouraging depictions of the state of Canadian religion and the condition of the Roman Catholic Church have not been accurate. A solid and stable core of Canadians, led by Catholics, continues to embrace the Christian faith.

What's more, in the immediate future, the unprecedented worldwide growth of Christianity and Catholicism means that immigration will have an extremely positive impact on the Canadian religious situation. Growth rather than decline, belief rather than disbelief, are in the works.

Contrary to rumour, the ship is not going down. The day after the violent storm that was supposed to destroy everything has passed, we find that the air is calm, the sun continues to shine, and the ship is still intact and moving ahead. To use another succinct metaphor, the sky never fell.

That's not to say for a moment that things have remained the same. During the 50-year period spanning the 1940s to 1990s, regular weekly attendance in Canada decreased from about 60 per cent to 25 per cent. In the case of Roman Catholics, the decline started in the 1960s, with attendance falling from around 80 per cent to 30 per cent by 1990. In Quebec, attendance was higher than in parishes elsewhere in the 1960s, but lower by the 1990s.

The decline in attendance led many observers to assume that the downturn would continue unabated. It hasn't happened. A careful reading of attendance trends reveals that a solid core of about 25 per cent of Canadians, young and old, have continued to attend services on a weekly basis since the 1980s. Another 10 per cent or so have been reporting that they attend at least once a month.

However, there has been a significant new development. A growing number of Canadians have been moving away from active and even moderate involvement. Approximately 25 per cent say they "never" attend services, and close to one in five adults and one in three teenagers - now indicate that they have "no religion."


Yet, what the situation adds up to is not unrelenting secularization where religion is en route to extinction. Instead, what we have in Canada is polarization.

Growing numbers of people are turning their backs on religion, with some being noticeably vocal. But a significant segment still values faith. A sizable "ambivalent middle" neither embraces nor rejects religion - particularly in Quebec.

Growing polarization in the post-1960s has been accompanied by a major restructuring of organized religion. Historically-strong Protestant denominations such as the United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches have been experiencing severe numerical losses. In 1931, just under 50 per cent of Canadians identified with these four groups. By 2001, the figure had fallen to 20 per cent.

The biggest factor? Changing immigration patterns. In the past, these "mainline Protestants" benefitted immensely from people arriving in Canada from Britain and other western European countries.

Reginald Bibby says Catholics should be building bridges with other churches.

Reginald Bibby says Catholics should be building bridges with other churches.

But in recent decades, a major shift in immigration patterns has seen the top countries of origin shift to countries such as China, India and the Philippines. The result is that the mainliners' invaluable immigration pipelines have been largely shut down.

In sharp contrast, the proportion of Canadians who identify themselves as Catholic has remained remarkably steady over time — 42 per cent in 1871, 43 per cent in 1951, and 42 per cent in 2001.

In view of the global strength of Catholicism, the Church in Canada has been continually reinforced by new arrivals from all over the world. In Quebec, identification has not fallen with attendance. Catholicism still reigns.


Our surveys show that 98 per cent of weekly-attending Quebec Catholics are not open to switching to other religions, only marginally higher than the 97 per cent figure for those who attend monthly through never.

Similarly, evangelical Protestant denominations — including Baptist, Pentecostal, Alliance, Christian Reformed and Mennonite groups - have constituted a small but durable collective core of some eight per cent of the population over time. They too have benefitted from immigration from diverse parts of the globe.

But they also owe their resilience to their ability to retain their children, as well as a measure of evangelistic success. Their emphasis on participation has resulted in an increase over the past five decades in the involvement levels of their people.

Other religious groups remain relatively small at no more than one per cent of the Canadian population, with the exception of Muslims (two per cent). Given Islam's large worldwide population, immigration may see that faith continue to increase in size in Canada.

To sum up, the restructuring of religion in the country is seeing Roman Catholics and evangelicals emerge as the dominant Christian players, with mainline Protestants experiencing a diminishing role in Canadian religious life.


These findings, it seems to me, carry with them at least four extremely important implications.

The first is the need for a mindset change. For too long, Canadian Christians have been intimidated by proclamations of religion's demise. Polarization is far different from eradication. The time has come to discard ideas like "post-Christian," "faithful remnants" and even "secular societies."

Faith continues to have a significant place in the lives of millions of people, led by Catholics. That solid core is not going to disappear.

Second, a fascinating element in the ongoing vitality of religion in Canada is immigration. Globally, the fastest growing groups are Christians — led by Roman Catholics and Pentecostals — along with Muslims.

The heightened racial and ethnic diversification that you have been seeing in many of your parishes, particularly in urban areas, is only going to accelerate.

Third, it might be radical but it needs to be considered. If Canada is increasingly divided between people who are religious and those who are not, those who value faith need to find ways of working more closely with each other. More specifically, Catholics and evangelicals in particular need to explore and tap into commonalities that can contribute to a more effective Christian presence in Canada. This is a time for bridges, not chasms.


Fourth, the research findings show that the key to greater participation is clear: less involved Catholics and other Canadians are open to greater participation to the extent they find that faith touches their lives, addressing their readily-acknowledged spiritual, personal and relational needs.

In 1997, the Vatican's Directory for Catechesis included this challenge: "Entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel. Such situations require "a new evangelization."

These headline findings from Beyond the Gods & Back provide considerable reason for hope and optimism for people who value faith. But they also serve to remind Catholics of their responsibility to reach out to uninvolved people who "think" they are Catholic.

There's no doubt: God is expecting big things from Canada's Catholics.

(Reginald Bibby is a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and author of several books on religion in Canada, including Beyond the Gods & Back.)