‘Seismic’ shift hits religious landscape

It is true that many Canadians do believe and retain their religious faith. But those numbers are dropping, and dropping fast, according to the latest census figures. (Photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register - CCN))

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – There were 10.9 million self-identified Catholics in Canada in 2021, a sharp drop of two million from 2011, according to the latest census religion numbers.

And at 19.3 million Christians in Canada, that’s 53.3 per cent of the population, down from 77.1 per cent 20 years ago and 67.3 per cent a decade ago.

Meanwhile people who claim no attachment to religion — the religious “nones” — are the fastest growing spiritual collective in the country. The unaffiliated are now more than a third of the country at 12.6 million people. As a percentage of Canadians, the non-religious have gone from 16.5 per cent in 2001 to 23.9 per cent in 2011 to 34.6 per cent in 2021.

The “nones” are not just adults fed up with their church. Over the last decade the number of children under 10 with no attachment to any religion has grown by nearly 600,000, swelling to over 3.3 million.

“The number of religious ‘nones’ rose in 2001 and 2011 because people were leaving their religious communities — for example, many Catholics left the Church,” said David Seljak, sociologist of religion and St. Jerome University professor of religious studies. “The new figure includes those kinds of people, but increasingly it includes children of those people — that is, people who have had no experience of formal religion whatsoever.”

The academics who study religion as a social phenomenon have predicted this result for at least a generation, but the swiftness of the change has taken many by surprise, Seljak said.

“While Christianity still informs our values, practices and institutions indirectly, it no longer has the cultural power that it had in the 1950s and 1960s,” Seljak said.

It is not the loss of cultural power that bothers Fr. Harrison Ayre, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Nanaimo, B.C. Ayre worries that the remaining 10.9 million Catholics have lost the real meaning of the faith they profess.

“That decline of two million people in 10 years while population is going up is very alarming to see. It’s a very alarming number,” Ayre said. “It’s catastrophic in the sense of it being a clear sign of a lack of conviction, of a lack of the sense of urgency in proclaiming the faith.”

Catholics have to take collective responsibility for passively watching while society turns its back on the Church, said Ayre.

“I have to encounter this question in myself. I have to encounter my own co-responsibility for this catastrophe,” he said. “I have to recognize where I have not allowed Christ to take over my life and transform me.”

Ayre points to Pope Francis’ emphasis on a Church out in the world, dirty and bruised, meeting their fellow human beings on their own turf.

“You’ve got a problem that people aren’t reflective anymore, so they don’t know how to ask these questions. They don’t know how to get in touch with their experience in the right way,” he said. “Pope Francis is definitely encouraging us to go there — and so did Pope Benedict and so did Pope John Paul II… If it’s not a wake-up call, then until we start asking, ‘Why is it that people feel like Christianity doesn’t speak to them anymore?’ things aren’t going to get better.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said the Church in Canada is leaning into Pope Francis’ vision.

“Pope Francis’ call to missionary discipleship through the process of evangelization is re-energizing the Church,” said a CCCB spokesperson in an email. “Dioceses and eparchies in Canada, along with religious orders, movements and associations, are heeding the call to create opportunities for encounters with Christ beyond the walls of church buildings.”

The CCCB wouldn’t say whether the new data is good news or bad. “More time and study is needed to unpack the information and understand its implications,” the bishops’ conference said.

David Seljak, St. Jerome University professor of religious studies.

To Seljak, it is clear: Canada is not a religious country — not anymore. And neither is it really Christian. “Canada is officially a post-Christian society,” Seljak wrote in an email.

Catholics have to face up to a new reality, said Seljak.

“This census, more than any other, makes plain the seismic shift in the Canadian religious and cultural landscape. We are living in a new age,” he said. “What does it mean for a Catholic university or hospital if those who identify as Catholic continue to decline so dramatically? For example, why would students without any religious identity enrol in a Catholic school or university? Any Catholic leader who thinks they can ignore the new religious landscape in Canada is living in a dreamland, a dreamland that will — should current trends continue — turn into a nightmare.”

Statistics Canada reports that 25 per cent of Catholics attend Mass at least once a month. Beliefs and spirituality are somewhat or very important to 62 per cent of Catholics with 38 per cent claiming they are either not very important or not important at all. A full 31 per cent of Catholics claim they never participate in either group or individual spiritual practices.

Regionally, Quebec has led the exodus from the Church. Where in 1957, 88 per cent of Quebec Catholics reported attending religious services on a weekly basis, this declined to 38 per cent by 1980. In the last 10 years the proportion of Quebeckers telling census-takers they are Catholic has fallen from 74.7 per cent to 53.8 per cent.

“The ungluing of Catholicism from French Quebec national identity has surprised even those sociologists who first predicted this trend,” said Seljak. “Today, a little more than one in four Quebeckers declare themselves to be without religion.”

The most spiritual people in Canada have become ever more detached from religious institutions. Nearly half of Indigenous Canadians (47 per cent) claim no religious affiliation. At the same time, 83 per cent of Indigenous say their spiritual beliefs are somewhat or very important to them.

“Much of this movement away from Christianity is certainly the fallout of various scandals involving the churches and residential schools,” Seljak said.

Filipino immigration continues to bolster Catholic numbers. There are now 957,000 people of Filipino origin living in Canada, or 2.6 per cent of the population. Seven in 10 Filipino-Canadians (72.4 per cent) report that they are Catholic.

More than half (51.9 per cent) of Latin American immigrants are Catholic, with another 13.6 per cent telling Statistics Canada they are Christian without specifying allegiance to a particular church.

Immigration has made Canada more religiously diverse. Islam is now the religion of 1.8 million Canadians, or 4.9 per cent of the population compared to just two per cent in 2001. One in 50 Canadians (2.3 per cent, compared to just one per cent in 2001) are now Hindu. Sikhs have gone from less than one per cent in 2001 to more than two per cent in 2021.

Canada’s Jewish population has remained steady, coming in at 335,000 in 2021, compared to 300,000 in 2001. As a percentage of Canada’s growing population they’ve slipped from 1.1 per cent to 0.9 per cent over the last 20 years.