CNS photo/Rich Kalonick, Catholic Extension

Charles Lewis: Religion surveys don’t tell the whole story

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  • May 9, 2019

To read statistical surveys of religion in Canada and the United States is to believe organized religion is imploding. 

A few years ago the Washington-based Pew Research Center looked at the growth on “nones.” These are people who are spiritual but disdain traditional denominations or identify as atheist or agnostic. One study found nones had increased to 23 per cent of the population from 16 per cent roughly eight years before. 

Two things stood out for me. Sixty per cent of the nones said two things were important in their decision to avoid organized religion: Questioning of religious doctrine was the first reason and the second was “opposition to the positions taken by churches and social and political issues.” 

In Canada, a 2016 study by Rick Hiemstra and Karen Stiller for In Trust, a journal for seminaries, found similar disturbing signs of weakening faith. This is what they found about weekly Mass attendance, for example:

“For English-speaking Catholics, the numbers dropped from 33 per cent to 19 per cent. For mainline Protestants, the numbers who attend church weekly dropped from 20 per cent to 10 per cent. And among evangelicals, the number fell from 49 per cent to 40 per cent.”

A few things: Trends are important, especially when they show significant drops or increases. They can alert those in charge about a problem that needs to be fixed.

Or, it can send those leaders down a perilous road in which numbers trump real orthodox faith. 

Some mainstream Protestant churches have become warehouses for every ephemeral trendy idea in a desperate battle to put people in the pews. It is as if they believe in everything and nothing at all.

In essence, it has been a case of fixing a leaky roof by blowing up the foundation. 

I have no doubt that if tomorrow the Church declared it was for abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and female priests, our numbers would skyrocket. The shell would fill up fast but then empty just as quickly when the new faithful realized we were no different than any other religious group. Why be a Catholic when others with better coffee and cake, more comfortable pews or funnier ministers are just around the corner? Who needs all that dogma and judgment when the Church of the Happy Face has opened its arms to every feel-good idea?

For Catholics who adhere to the faith it would be like having our hearts ripped out.

Statistics, too, rarely reflect the passion of the faithful and their dedication to doctrine.

On a recent Monday I went to a noon Mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica. I arrived early. There were maybe a dozen people in the pews. Then came morning rosary. I looked around and now there were maybe 100 in attendance. When Mass began there were closer to 400 in the room. The group included young and old, male and female, a variety of ethnicities and colours. 

Many were there at their lunch breaks because they wanted the body and blood of Christ, not popular positions.

Last month at Holy Family, my home parish, Palm Sunday service was so packed there were people jammed into the back of the church and the vestibule. They stood for two hours, some with children, enraptured by the holy service.

What statistics would show that?

For about four years I did talks in many area parishes about euthanasia. Often I came for Sunday Mass before going to the podium. I always found the pews full, the people focused and respectful. 

What I have seen and still see is that a true vibrancy of faith will not be easily shaken. No one worries about numbers when there is standing room only.

One of my favourite books is called Faith and the Future, published in 1971, by then professor Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. 

The book by the future Pope Benedict XVI includes a 1969 essay entitled “What Will the Church Look Like?” He was writing about the crisis in the Church then. He predicts the Church will shrink. But he does not despair.

“But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find Her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at Her centre: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.”

From a smaller seed a more faithful Church will grow. Amen.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.) 


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Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. 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.