LETHBRIDGE, Alta. — During the Christmas season large numbers of Canada’s Catholics will seemingly come out of the woodwork for their semi-annual visit to churches. Similar to what happens at Easter, national attendance will triple to close to 50 per cent. That will involve a jump from about 10 per cent to 35 per cent in Quebec, and a major increase from around 25 per cent to a whopping 65 per cent in the rest of the country. Ironically, the Christmas crowd will be joining regulars who increasingly have been coming from other countries.
Overall, that translates into a lot of people. Catholics, who number some 13 million people and comprise about 40 per cent of all Canadians, are easily the country’s largest religious group. The Catholic Christmas total will be somewhere around 6 million people. For those who follow sports more closely than religion, that number essentially matches the total number of fans who attend the home games of all seven Canadian NHL teams in an entire season.
The typical response of most observers will be on the cynical side. “Catholics who otherwise don’t attend services think they should show up at least at Christmas and Easter, especially if mom and dad and maybe the grandparents are around.” Faith seemingly is of marginal importance to them.
But our research suggests that Christmas actually provides an important clue as to the role of religion in the lives of most of Canada’s Catholics. Put succinctly, they might not be coming but they certainly aren’t leaving. And when it comes to beliefs and practices, they are into religion à la carte. Our data tell a blunt and sobering tale: for many Catholics, faith is valued far more than group involvement.
The cynics are accurate about sporadic attendance. In the 1960s, approximately 80 per cent of Catholics were weekly churchgoers. Today, the figure stands at around 15 per cent nationally, in Quebec, under 10 per cent.
Still, the fact such large numbers of Catholics make a point of showing up at Christmas is a reminder that many continue to value their Catholic faith. Our extensive surveys of Catholics and other Canadians have found, for example, that:
• 83 per cent of Catholics believe in God;
• 72 per cent say they believe that God cares about them personally;
• 54 per cent claim they have experienced God’s presence;
• 68 per cent believe they have been protected by a guardian angel;
• 72 per cent acknowledge that they have spiritual needs;
• 41 per cent tell us they pray privately at least once a week;
• 40 per cent maintain they feel strengthened by their faith — 13 per cent daily, 13 per cent weekly, 14 per cent monthly
• 73 per cent believe in life after death
• 53 per cent think we can communicate with the dead
• 57 per cent say that, when they die, they want to have a religious funeral.
More generally, close to 50 per cent of Canadian Catholics see God as an important factor in determining what happens in their lives. That’s true for about 80 per cent of active Catholics and 30 per cent of less active Catholics. In all of these cases of belief, practice, and salience, levels are similar for Catholics in Quebec and in the rest of the country.
And Catholics are not about to leave the church. On the contrary, some 80 per cent raised in Catholic homes continue to say they are “Catholic.” Outside Quebec, the figure is 77 per cent, in Quebec, 88 per cent.
Christmas attendance signals the fact that the majority of Catholics today place considerable value on beliefs, prayer, the occasional mass, rites of passage, and being Catholic. But, when it comes to the church, the problem is not that Canadian Catholics want a lot; the problem is that they want so little.
They also are no longer passive and acquiescent, nor particularly obedient. Rather than bowing to the authority of the church in everyday life, they want to make their own moral and ethical decisions. So it is that our surveys have documented what we all know well — that large numbers of Catholics break with the church’s positions when it comes to things like sexual behaviour, abortion, sexual orientation, the role of women, and divorce.
Yet they stay Catholic and value being Catholic. The obvious question is, “Why?” Andrew Greeley, the late provocative sociologist, priest, and bestselling novelist, said that he often had been asked why he remained a Catholic when he disagreed with the church on so many matters. His response: “Why should I leave? I like being Catholic and I like being a priest.” He added that the moral failings and incompetence of leaders have not driven average people out of the church because they like being Catholic. They like “the stories about angels and saints, Mary the mother of Jesus and stained glass windows and statues, Midnight Mass, first communion, Lent, Advent, the communion of the saints, the sacraments, the Christmas cribs, the lady holding Jesus. You may break with the institution,” said Greeley, “but you cannot escape the images.”
Will things ever change? Will Catholics ever want more?
As mortal sociologists and pollsters, we hardly have all the answers. But one basic reality could turn things around. All of us give our time and resources to those things which elevate our lives and the lives of the people we care about most, led by our families and friends. If Catholics can find that greater involvement in parishes tangibly contributes to such an enhancement of life, a significant number will want to have more to do with the church. Currently, most do not seem to be making that key connection.
Until they do, the majority can be expected to leave Christmas services, paradoxically, staunchly Catholic with the clear intention of reappearing — “same time next year.”
Reginald W. Bibby holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in Sociology at the University of Lethbridge. Angus Reid chairs the Angus Reid Institute. Their latest book is Canada’s Catholics: Vitality and Hope in a New Era (Toronto: Novalis, 2016).