October 18, 2010

Some sociologists maintain that Canada may follow the lead of Europe where a thorough secularization has driven church attendance rates to 5 per cent of the population with no sign of rebound in sight.


Is the Roman Catholic Church growing, holding its own, or diminishing in Western Canada? There is more than one reasonable response to this question.

The most optimistic projection is provided by a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, Reginald Bibby. Bibby has been charting the status of churches in Canada for 35 years. Bibby's optimism is based on three assumptions:

First, Bibby endorses a market view of religion seeing it in terms of supply and demand. For Bibby, religion deals with the big questions of life: suffering, meaning and death and these do not change; people must deal with these issues.

Therefore the demand for religious services remains constant but the ability of suppliers (churches) to meet people's religious needs can falter. If fewer people come to church, that is because the churches are failing to respond to people's needs and the Church must learn how to minister more effectively in order to bring people back to church.

Secondly, Bibby's surveys ask questions which measure a person's receptivity to religion such as: "If the Church offered programs that you judged to enrich your life, would you attend?" He believes his survey results demonstrate that the demand is there, if only the churches would creatively respond.

Finally, the religious survey work he completed in the year 2002, demonstrates that the drop in church attendance has bottomed out and recovery is slowly beginning.

Bibby is aware that Canadian Catholic church attendance has fallen since 1945 by 55 per cent while the percentage of those reporting that they have "no religion" has since the 1971 census increased 400 per cent. Yet Bibby believes that the freefall in Canadian church attendance may have bottomed out in the year 2002 and were the churches to respond creatively to the religious hunger and demand that exists amongst Canadians, then the churches would grow again.


It is now eight years since Bibby's announcement that the churches have hit bottom and may begin to rebound in church attendance. I really wish I could believe this forecast is true. I just don't see signs of a turnaround. Rather, what I hear increasingly are such discouraging remarks as:

"At Mass, if you sit in the back, all you see are grey heads."

"I never recognize families who have their child baptized and then after that I never see them again."

"Our parish's weekly collection is slowly decreasing as our older parishioners die off. There doesn't seem to be any newcomers to take their place."

Bibby's optimistic outlook has attracted criticism. Some note that the countries in formerly Christian Scandinavia have been in a church attendance freefall since the Second World War. Attendance finally bottomed out recently at around five per cent. There is no sign of a rebound. The same appears to be the case in England.

If Bibby is correct, then there should be a powerful pent-up demand for religious services in these countries. But not only is there little demand but the little there is, is weakening.

It appears that many people there and in Canada can get along quite well without addressing their supposed religious needs. Many do not feel any need to baptize children, to marry in church or to arrange for religious funerals.


Increasingly people use psychology and self-help books to deal with issues of suffering and death. Some people improvise and create their own rites of passage. They individualize and privatize just as they do most everything else in their lives. A good number of people seem to be able to get through life without bothering to solve the issues of suffering and death. They simply ignore them as long as possible.

Bibby's assertion that organized religion is making a comeback is based heavily upon the results of his survey work in 2000. If his more current research does not continue to demonstrate a sustained growth in church attendance, then the statistical basis for his optimism is seriously weakened.

In order to maintain an optimistic outlook on the stability of Catholic parish life, one has to pray that Bibby's most recent research can continue to support his bottoming out and gradual rebounding scenario.

In addition to Bibby's optimistic outlook, there is another way to answer the question "What is happening to the Church in Western Canada?" It involves accepting the deeply pessimistic secularization theory.

The British sociologist Steve Bruce is an articulate advocate for this outlook. For Bruce, it is easily demonstrated that when a country industrializes, modernizes, protects human rights and safeguards social pluralism, religion will invariably decline in social significance; religion then becomes a private, personal affair "except where it finds work to do other than relating individuals to the supernatural."


In secularized societies people become indifferent to religion except in those situations where the Church is defending a society against an oppressive outsider (as was the case in Poland) or is assisting immigrants to adapt to a new culture (as is the case in Toronto).

Bruce notes that secularization does not require a growing number of atheists; it simply requires a growing number of people to gradually grow religiously indifferent. In a secularized country, the number of regular church-attending members is slowly distilled down to a small percentage of the population, around five per cent. Religion in secular cultures does not disappear; it simply becomes the eccentric practice of a small marginalized group.

Periodically, renewal programs and movements appear that seem to give promise of reversing secularization. The recent papal visit to Britain, for example, would appear to give promise of an eventual renewal but previous papal visits or enthusiastic World Youth Days also initially bring out a crowd but do not appear to have an ongoing impact; there is an upsurge in practice and enthusiasm but inevitably the decline in attendance continues.

Bruce is not impressed with the seeming religiousness of the United States. He thinks U.S. churches are approximately where British churches were around 1950 with the signs of decline becoming increasingly evident.

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman support Bruce's secularization thesis of a diminishing social role for religion by noting in an article "Why the gods are not winning," found on the website edge.org, that societies with a secularized majority share a number of common features: handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and bullying legislation, sex education, rehabilitative rather than punitive corrections programs, greatly reduced disparities between economic classes, and comprehensive and publicly financed health care.


Citizens in these countries are sheltered from many of life's calamities and with that sense of safety develops, as night follows day, a growing indifference to organized religion.

The United States proves the rule. In the United States an educated middle class is religious.

Paul and Zuckerman believe this is because Americans are kept in a state of economic fear and insecurity. Lack of health insurance, poor job security, a growing gulf between rich and poor, a vanishing middle class, and excess consumer debt create an anxious environment that is hospitable to religion.

Canada is less religious because there is less social inequality and stronger social safety nets. In the United States, social conservatives who oppose health insurance and expansion of a social safety net are frequently militantly religious.

It is extremely difficult for a non-specialist to know if Bibby more accurately describes the religious situation in Western Canada than does Bruce.

Yet a great deal rides on being able to answer the question, what is the future of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Canada? Churches are being built to accommodate large numbers, debt is being assumed, a certain factor of growth is being calculated into these decisions. My own hunch, is that Bibby is mistaken; we are nowhere near hitting bottom in weekly church attendance. Hard as it is to accept, five per cent may be our future.

To my knowledge, no one in the Canadian Catholic Church at a national, provincial or diocesan level is releasing data that attempts to chart what is happening regarding active Church membership. The United States has a central clearing house, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University, that compiles and analyzes a great deal of data and conducts its own survey and research regarding church attendance.

It would be most valuable if a sociologist were commissioned to conduct qualitative and quantitative research to answer the question, what is the future of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Canada? Have we hit bottom and are rebounding or are we still in a freefall that will stabilize at five per cent?

(Joe McMorrow is a religious educator and has a doctor of ministry degree. He lives with his family in Camrose.)