Christmas time is here, prepare for the Globe’s seasonal religious cheer

  • December 22, 2010
Just in time for Christmas, The Globe and Mail ran a five-part series on the “future of faith” in Canada. In its unflagging service to the nation, the Globe customarily marks the Christmas season with depressing religion stories. This year’s contribution was rather more ambitious than most, and worth a read.

The lead author was the Globe’s Michael Valpy, the paper’s religion correspondent. It’s hard to take Valpy seriously after his hilarious performance during the conclave of 2005, when his April 19 column described Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as “too divisive and likely too old at 78 to be elected Pope himself.” Within hours of that analysis hitting the streets in Toronto, Ratzinger was on the balcony of St. Peter’s as the new Pope. Valpy spent the rest of April 2005 explaining why Ratzinger’s election was “puzzling” even though any journalist with a basic knowledge of Catholic affairs knew that Ratzinger was a strong candidate in 2005. Indeed, Valpy’s counterpart at the National Post accurately predicted the day of Ratzinger’s election.

So reading Valpy and the Globe on the future of religion is an uncertain business. Yet their analysis this year marked something of a departure from their usual take on religion. To be sure, there was an appearance of the young Catholic who abandoned his faith because of homosexuality, abortion and contraception — the trinity of issues that define Catholicism for the secular press. But the Globe got two big trends right.

The first is that the dependence of Christian churches upon new immigrants means a more orthodox approach to faith.

“On matters such as homosexuality, the role of women, sex education and religious instruction, immigrant religious groups are embracing debates that pit them against the majority public opinion,” Valpy writes. “In the Anglican Church, Chinese Canadians have been at the forefront of the split over homosexual unions. Presbyterians from Korea, Ghana and Trinidad have put a conservative stamp on a church that once was liberal. At a United Church conference in Toronto a couple of years ago, Korean pastors walked out when the organizers opened the gathering with an ecumenical Buddhist prayer. Moreover, religious newcomers to Canada — not only Christian but Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Orthodox Jewish — are showing signs of being unreceptive to the recent Canadian tradition, that scholars date roughly to the 1960s, of keeping religion out of the public sphere.”

The second big trend that the Globe acknowledged is what Catholics call the “vocations crisis” is not a uniquely Catholic phenomenon. This represents something of a grudging concession from the Globe, which has always advanced the idea that the road to ecclesial vitality lies in adapting to the prevailing culture. In terms of priestly vocations, it has been an article of faith that ending priestly celibacy and ordaining women would solve the shortage of Catholic priests. So to report that the United Church has 50 per cent of its clergy over the age of 55 is significant. There is no progressive cause not embraced by the United Church, yet they are closing one church a week across the country.

Catholics ought not be complacent. Without foreign priests, many dioceses would have to shutter an enormous number of parishes. Non-practising Catholics are a much larger group than practising ones, and the many parishes are dominated by both elderly parishioners and elderly priests.

But the clear message of the “future of faith” series is that Canada’s accommodating religious establishment has long since seen its best days. The great progressive project of the Canadian Christian establishment has failed.

In contrast, I will be spending the Christmas week in Montreal, with some 500 young people assembled by Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO). Active on some nine campuses across Canada, CCO has found a way to reach young adults with the power of the Gospel. A bright spot in contrast with so much of the bleak news about religion in Canada, the young people of CCO seek not to accommodate the Catholic tradition to the culture around them, but to transform their lives according to the standard of the Gospel.

The good news of the annual encounter with the dynamic young missionaries of CCO is that the Gospel has not lost its power. The news of the Globe series is that churches who have lost the Gospel no longer have the power to shape our culture.

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