Diocesan Study Day: “Religion, Faith and Society – the Future of Catholicism in Canada” – Dr. Angus Reid

Living Catholic Faith
Dr Angus Reid

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski

At a recent Study Day in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, Canadian sociologist and pollster Dr. Angus Reid outlined statistics, trends and issues that could affect the future of Catholicism in Canada.

The founder of Angus Reid Institute, a non-partisan, not-for-profit opinion research organization based in Vancouver described a few of his Saskatchewan connections during the Oct. 19 gathering, which was held in a parish hall at St. Anne’s parish named for Reid’s late cousin, Fr. Paul Donlevy, who served as a priest in the diocese of Saskatoon.

Born in Regina, Reid worked in the field of market research for some 32 years, before establishing a non-profit institute to advance public opinion research on social, economic and policy issues in Canada – including matters related to faith and values.

While there has been declining church attendance in recent decades, many people retain a faith connection in their “hearts and souls,” contradicting the idea that faith is passé, said Reid, citing studies on faith, prayer and attitudes toward religion.

Anatomy of Faith in Canada
Reid presented results of a 2017 national study on the Anatomy of Faith in Canada, in which seven factors were measured: belief in God or a higher power, belief in life after death, prayer, reading of the Bible or other sacred text, experience of God’s presence, desire to have children educated about faith, and attendance at religious services.

Researchers used answers to these questions to create a continuum of faith, with four distinct groups emerging: the religiously committed (21 per cent of the total population); the privately faithful (30 per cent), the spiritually uncertain (30 per cent) and non-believers (19 per cent).

“There is no such thing as an average Canadian here. These are four very distinct groups of Canadians, and they are as different as night and day,” asserted Reid, noting that western Canada and the Maritimes have the highest proportion of the religiously committed, while British Columbia and Quebec the lowest.

Reid said that the study demonstrated that an experience of God or faith as a child is “beyond anything else what sets an indelible mark,” as an indicator for future belief.

“If you had an experience of praying as a child – there is an 80 per cent chance that you will pray later in life,” Reid said, noting the importance of family faith and the impact of Catholic education. “I can’t stress enough how fundamental that engagement with youth is.”

Reid noted that 80 per cent of the “religiously committed” say that religion is key to their identity. “It is not just one other part of life, but part of their identity, of who they are, of how they live,” he stressed. The religiously committed are most comfortable with other people of faith (even if it is not their own), and are uncomfortable with atheists.

In Canada, those who are religiously committed tend to be socially conservative on many moral issues, but “very left wing on almost all economics issues,” such as sharing wealth, caring for the poor, and so on, Reid said, noting that in this correlation, Canada is markedly different than the United States, where religious commitment more often converges with right wing politics.

The “religiously committed” in Canada are twice as likely to be minorities, he added.

The 30 per cent of Canadians described as “privately faithful” are alienated from organized religion for a variety of reasons, but they are not totally alienated from faith or from God, said Reid. “If they were baptized Catholic, they are going to say they are Catholic for life, even if they have not been to a service for years,” he said, noting the “privately faithful” group in the faith survey is dominated by Catholics.

A majority of the privately faithful said they wished for a closer relationship with God and many had a feeling of guilt about not being more involved in faith.

Re-engagement with the Church is most likely to happen when a Catholic man or a Catholic woman has a child. “They are often looking for a door back in,” said Reid, stressing the importance for faith communities to reach out and engage with people at such key moments. “Unfortunately, they are sometimes pushed away.”

Impact of Religion on Society
The study also provided a window into the impact of religion on society, Reid said.

“Why should we care as a society? We should care because there are such strong correlation between religiosity and attitudes which are beneficial to civic life,” he asserted.

Among the “religiously committed” and “privately faithful,” survey responses indicate a greater commitment to the importance of family life, the value of honesty, concern for others, community engagement, charitable giving, and optimism for the future, he listed. “Faith and religion are good cornerstones for a good, strong society,” he said, adding that this message is lost to many journalists and politicians. “We are at some risk of losing the narrative here.”

Future forces
Reid also gave an overview of trends and forces that will affect the future of religion, faith and Catholicism in Canada, including immigration, aging population, science, economics, Church history and leadership, and the battle for religious freedom.

Immigration must continue given Canada’s demographics, said Reid, and will “mean a big difference in terms of the religious equation.” He noted that newcomers to Canada often have a much higher level of attachment to faith – about three times higher. For Catholics, this includes people from the Philippines, from Latin America, from parts of India, he noted.

Regarding the aging population, he noted that as people grow older there is a natural tendency to be more focused on spirituality, roots, and “what comes next” – an opportunity for greater engagement by faith communities.

In the area of science, major issues related to life and ethics over the next 20 or 30 years will include new genetic technologies, such as cloning and genetically modifying human beings, he said.

When it comes to economics, the idea that each generation in Canada will be better off than their parents no longer holds true. “That rising tide of economic optimism has come crashing down – particularly among millennials,” he said. For Christians in general and Catholics in particular, this creates an opportunity to engage even more on questions of social justice and how we distribute the fruits of society to benefit the common good of all. “The economic equation will be favorable for new avenues of Christianity to preach the gospel.”

As for Church history and leadership, there is no doubt that there is a crisis of leadership, Reid said, citing residential schools and ongoing reports of sexual abuse by clergy and predicting this will continue as revelations continue to be brought forward.

“It speaks to me of the need to move beyond a view of Catholicism that is clerical to a view that involves all of us.”

Regarding the battle for religious freedom and a place for religion in the public square, Reid noted the divide between Canadians who are religiously committed and the secular political system is growing wider.

What to do?
In light of the studies and the trends, Reid urged faith communities to take up the opportunities for engagement at an individual and a pastoral level, understanding the journeys that Catholics in particular are involved in, and reaching out.

In the realm of communications, he pointed to survey questions about positive and negative reactions to particular words – with religion and evangelization as words that are viewed negatively, while the words forgiveness and mercy garner a positive reaction. “The Catholic Church has long history of forgiveness and the mercy of God. From a communication standpoint, those are powerful concepts,” he said.

In recent weeks, news reports have caused a more negative view of clergy, but the view of Roman Catholics in general has not changed, he said. “This is really an opportunity for Catholic laity: committed Catholic and Christian leaders have a great opportunity to step up and have a role here,” he said.

He noted that it is important to “turn the cameras” and tell other stories of faith and justice in order to communicate the Christian reality. “There is a potential for the emergence of a new era of Catholic leaders who can speak to and re-orient the Church to some of the important messages of the gospel… a social justice treatment of issues,” he said.

“We need to change the channel and turn up the volume – going beyond certainly faith in the public square,” he said, urging his listeners to live up to the legacy of people like Fr. Paul Donlevy and others who have made a difference, who rolled up their sleeves and got things done.

In celebration of the Eucharist after Reid’s presentation, Bishop Mark Hagemoen spoke in his homily about the challenges ahead.

“We exist for the praise of God’s Glory and in this, humanity finds our glory. How is that informed by what we heard today?” he queried. Focusing on the Incarnation is a helpful way forward, Hagemoen suggested, stressing the need to personify and represent Christ in a hungry, searching world.

The Study Day continued with a presentation by pediatrician, educator and author Sr. Nuala Kenny on caring for the vulnerable in an age of Medically Assisted Death, entitled “Reclaiming Our Baptismal Call: Care and Accompaniment.”