In 1967 I was a seminarian with the Scarboro Fathers (the Canadian version of the Maryknollers) and spent part of the summer in Montreal during its spectacular Expo 67. It was a heady time. Canada was celebrating its centenary and there was a sense the country had crossed a threshold, had reached a coming-of-age as a nation. For a brief time we allowed ourselves to be, well, rather immodest.
Canada’s current and ever-so-modest celebration of the 150th year of its founding is a return to form, typical of its penchant for low-key observances. There were more articles on the significance of the event in The New York Times than in most Canadian dailies. Journalist and author Stephen Marche put it nicely when he observed that most Canadians love their country, but “they just love it quietly. They don’t want to make a big fuss.” Today Canada looks good on the global stage, with a prime minister who is photogenic, bilingual, progressive, and disarming, and who has won praise for his positions on gender equity, immigration and refugee acceptance, human rights, and climate change. The country has its faults—the monstrous maltreatment of its native peoples being the principal one—but on the whole, its image as a pacific, welcoming, and inclusive society has never been stronger. The fifty years since the centennial have seen demographic expansion, economic diversification, and exponential growth in institutions of higher education. In 2017, there’s even a vibrant national unity, as the separatism that periodically marked some of the intervening years (see: Quebec) has disappeared into its romantic cocoon.
For Catholicism, however, the last fifty years have mostly been ones of severe institutional decline. In 1967, for instance, the highly regarded cardinal archbishop of Montreal, Paul-Émile Léger, head of the pre-eminent archdiocese in the country, resigned to assume a new ministry as a missionary to the lepers of Cameroon. In 2017, the cardinal archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Christopher Collins, head of the today’s pre-eminent archdiocese in the country, is committed to the restoration of the ancien regime in Catholic ecclesial life. These fifty years have seen the disappearance of Catholic institutions from hitherto deeply Catholic Quebec (New France has opted to follow Old France in its slavish adherence to the 1905 doctrine of laïcité—with its rigorous exclusion of religion from the political world), the rise and fall of national leadership in Catholic social teaching by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the marginalization of the Catholic voice in the political arena, and the collapse of interest in Catholic affairs in the secular media. Further, there’s the precipitous drop in religious practice among Catholics, the aging of religious personnel, the clustering of parishes, the selling of churches, the enduring stain of clerical sex abuse, and the aftershocks of the Residential Schools crisis (a cultural genocide stemming from the late nineteenth-century policy of “assimilating” indigenous children by removing them from their homes and housing them in institutions run by the United, the Presbyterian, the Anglican, and the Roman Catholic churches).
Statistical data underscores the reality that a church that once commanded 46 percent of the country’s population and was an unassailable presence in education and healthcare is now a muted force. Although it retains the largest percentage of religious adherents in the country, this is the result mostly of immigration from more traditionally Catholic countries or thriving missionary territories.