Christianity's changing face

By  Robert Campbell, Catholic Register Special
  • October 10, 2008
{mosimage}Christianity and Ethnicity in Canada. edited by Paul Bramadat and David Seljak (University of Toronto Press, softcover, 448 pages, $49.95).

Canada’s churches no longer look or talk the way they once did. The once predominantly Anglo-Celtic membership of the United Church, an organization that viewed itself as a potential national church for Canada when it was established in 1925, is now complemented by large Taiwanese and Hungarian congregations. Many Catholic parishes in major cities now have a significant Filipino presence.

The face of Canadian Christianity is changing. Scholars and churchgoers are finding it more and more difficult to articulate exactly how ethnic origin and religious affiliation are related.

In this companion volume to Religion and Ethnicity in Canada (2005), Paul Bramadat, the director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, and David Seljak, who teaches religious studies at St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo, explore the relationship between ethnic and religious identity among Canada’s Christians. The premise is that as the ethnic diversity increases, not only are various non-Christian religious communities growing and contributing to the social mix of the nation, but Christian communities themselves are no longer merely reflective of their founding ethnic heritage.

{sa 0802095844}Along with an introduction and conclusion by the editors, there are nine chapters devoted to the study of one particular form of Christianity, with two on Catholicism. The expert authors are, for the most part, members of these distinct Christian communities.

Each chapter contains historical vignettes, along with coverage of major struggles and changes that have made these churches what they are today. Immigration and secularization have been important factors in these developments, as have the changing role of women and global changes in the religious traditions themselves. The authors emphasize historically strong links between religion and politics, and between religion and the provision of social services. They also take on the role of predominantly mono-ethnic religious communities in the preservation of language and culture.

In a statistical appendix prepared by Peter Beyer, we learn, among other things, that in 2001, 13.7 per cent of Canada’s 12.8 million Catholics had not been born in Canada, and of those about 61 per cent had arrived after 1971. 

Historian Mark McGowan, principal of Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College, begins his coverage of English-speaking and other non-French Catholics with a reflection on a visit to the historically German Church of the Immaculate Conception in Formosa, Ont., where his grandfather was baptized. He points out that, even though the Catholic Church represented the diverse heritage of the country’s early settlement groups, there was a unity among Catholics based on institutional and liturgical homogeneity, as well as in the face of the mainly English-speaking, and politically more powerful, Protestant population.

McGowan emphasizes that, particularly with reference to declining numbers, Catholicism is still feeling the effects of Vatican II and more recent doctrinal reform, as well as sexual and physical abuse scandals. In concluding, he points out that one of the key struggles today is among newer immigrant members that want to maintain a distinct ethnic identity, while at the same time integrating into the larger family of Canadian Catholics.

In her chapter on French-speaking Catholics, Solange Lefebvre, a theologian at the University of Montreal, points out the strong historical linkage between ethnic and religious identity among French Canadian Catholics that is still characteristic of the church in Quebec, as well as among the Acadians and other francophone communities. She emphasizes the importance of the changing role of women, as represented by the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and in response to the conservatism of the doctrinal position of John Paul II.

Lefebvre concludes that: “Like their co-religionists in several Western countries, Franco-Catholics in Canada today live with the paradox of a collective attachment to their religious institutions and a strong belief in individual choice.”

At more than 400 pages, this book presents a detailed and thorough coverage of the subject in a slightly formal but quite readable style. Each of the case study chapters can be read separately and in any order, depending on the interests and stamina of the individual reader.  

In their conclusion, Bramadat and Seljak suggest that today’s Canadian Christian communities are characterized by a tension between generations and a tension between long established members of European origin and newer members arriving from non-European nations. Readers will learn a great deal about how Christian churches in Canada got to where they are today, but, consistent with the sentiments expressed by the editors and contributors of this volume, they will be left wondering where the churches are going in the years to come.

(Campbell teaches at Cape Breton University.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.