Pope Benedict XVI.

Welcome a smaller Church of intense belief

  • November 13, 2022

The Catholic Church is in decline. That’s the takeaway from a Statistics Canada report released in October. It found that in the past 10 years the number of Catholics in Canada declined by two million souls. It seems straightforward enough, but I’m not sure what it means.  

The same report called Quebec the only majority Catholic province with roughly 55 per cent of Quebecers identifying with the faith. Seriously? Mass attendance in Quebec is estimated to be between two per cent and 11 per cent of the Catholic population. In Quebec, Catholic refers not so much to an actual faith but an inherited heritage. Identifying doesn’t mean believing. 

Let’s go back to the two million drop across the country. We have no idea whether those who no longer identify as Catholic ever practised the faith in a serious way. Many of these were likely the people who showed up at Christmas and Easter and never shut up through the entire Mass. Tis the seasons to look holy. 

The drop, of course, is not great. It means for many reasons our teachings have missed the mark. It also likely means that an orthodox faith such as ours is having a hard time against a fun-loving, freewheeling secular culture that demands little of the individual in terms of moral behaviour.  

Still, StatsCan did find that we are still the most popular religion in Canada. Hurray… or maybe not. Again, how many of those who identify as Catholic are serious about the faith?  

In 1969, then Fr. Joseph Ratzinger wrote a small book called Faith and the Future. He predicted a precipitous decline in the entire Catholic Church. But he also saw a positive side to this. 

His words are worth thinking about: 

“She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity … as the number of her adherents diminishes,” he wrote.  

“But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret. 

“And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” 

Of course, a strong core of faithful Catholics exists now. You can see them at Eucharistic adoration. You can see them waiting in silence for Mass to begin. They’re lined up at the confessional. They believe the man on the other side of the grill is an Alter-Christus. They believe that when they confess their sins they are forgiven by God. Faith to me doesn’t get much deeper than that. 

When I was covering religion at the National Post years ago, I covered what was then the schism in the Anglican Church of Canada. A small hardcore of faithful Anglicans rebelled against the majority who favoured the blessing of gay unions and a liberal interpretation of Scripture. They formed a new, conservative Anglican province. The main church was none too pleased with this. It began tossing these rebel Anglicans out of their parishes, even though these rebels had paid for their buildings. Many ended up in ugly court battles. One took place on Holy Thursday. Even the judge was appalled. 

A parish in Vancouver had to close its doors. Before this it had the largest attendance of any Anglican Church in the country. One woman I spoke to at the time told me her son was buried in the church graveyard. 

But these Anglicans stuck together, meeting in the basements of other denominations. They understood that principle was more important than property and that Christ resided among the believers if no longer in bricks and mortar.  

It didn’t matter that they were now small. What mattered was the intensity of their belief. Numbers don’t always add up to faith.  

(Lewis is a regular contributor to The Catholic Register.)

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