Pope Francis arrived in Quebec on Wednesday as part of his pilgrimage of penance, atoning for the sins of the Catholic Church against indigenous Canadians, around 37 per cent of whom remain Catholic. But the visit is unlikely to reverse a huge decline of the Catholic faith in the North American country – not least in Quebec – as Catholicism has tanked in much the same way it has in other Western countries. Indeed, as reported by the Associated Press, in Francophone Quebec (long the heart of Canadian Catholicism): “Pews these days are rarely filled, hundreds of churches have closed and the provincial government has banned public service workers from wearing religious symbols.”
Meanwhile, as reported by the National Post, between 1985 and 2019, the number of Catholics in Quebec fell from 87 per cent to 62 per cent. Today, less than 10 per cent of Québécois attend Mass regularly, compared with 90 per cent several decades ago. This, in spite of the fact the Catholic Church founded Quebec’s school system, and once controlled education and healthcare, as in other provinces. According to E.-Martin Meunier, of the University of Ottawa, the proportion of new-borns baptised as Catholics in Quebec fell by more than 30 per cent in the last 20 years, compared with just 13 per cent from 1969 to 2001.
However, Quebec is not alone. According to the National Post: “The Catholic Church in Canada is emerging from a pandemic with attendance rates that have been on the decline for decades.” Demographic changes in Canada – as in western Europe – have also played a role, amid an ageing population. As reported by Global News, Statistics Canada predicts the number of Canadians reporting a non-Christian religion could double in the next fourteen years. While in 2011, 67.3 per cent of Canadians were Christian, by 2019, that number had fallen to 63.2 per cent. It should be noted that, as in much of Europe, the decline among Protestants has been worse than among Catholics. In an ageing Christian population meanwhile, religious affiliation is at 85 per cent among Canadians born between 1940 and 1959, but just 32 per cent among those born between 1980 and 1999.
As also reported by the National Post, while in 1985, 10 million Canadians – or 39 per cent – identified as Catholic, by 2018, this was 29 per cent (albeit up by 1 million thanks to population growth, though not in proportion to overall numbers). While in 1985, 37 per cent of Catholics said they attended Mass at least once a week, 19 per cent once a month, and 21 per cent at least once a year – with 77 per cent of Catholics attending Mass or gatherings at least once a year – by 2022, the Angus Reid Institute estimated that 67 per cent of respondents who identified as Catholic said they attend Mass rarely or never. Only 14 per cent said they attended Mass once or twice a month, while 18 per cent did a few times a year.
Furthermore, according to an unreleased Cardus and Angus Reid Institute survey, in 2018, around 23 per cent of Catholics attended Mass, but by 2019, these numbers dropped to about 19 per cent, and in 2020, 12 per cent. Church closures have consequently been a major problem too, particularly in Quebec. According to the Associated Press, since 2003, 713 out of 2,746 Catholic churches in the province have been closed, demolished or converted, as reported by the Quebec Religious Heritage Council. Cardinal Gerald Lacroix said in 2021 the number of churches in the province is not sustainable. This, in a country which now trends incredibly liberal on almost all social issues, such as abortion, and where the Government has massively upended the Church as a welfare, education, and healthcare provider.
The Pope’s pilgrimage is unlikely to reverse this collapse. Although the recent scandal involving schools for indigenous children led to a spate of attacks on Catholic churches, the decline in Mass attendance – as in most of western Europe – has already baked in. Demographics are also a factor, with an ageing white Canadian population – who have generally made up the bulk of the Christian faith – and a rising multicultural population. That being said, it is the liberal drift of Canada which has probably had the biggest impact, mirroring trends elsewhere in the Western world. In this sense Canada is now closer to Germany – where the Synodal Pathway threatens a liberally-induced schism – than Germany is to neighbouring Poland, where the Church has roared back to life. The Pope’s visit may heal many wounds in Canada, but it is unlikely to bring Catholicism back to life in the country. But if Christianity is no longer the heart of countries like Canada, then what exactly now is?
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