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Rights + Justice

Will Pope Francis Embolden Canada’s Social Justice Catholics?

The pontiff visits a nation where his waning church is ‘struggling to find its place in society.’

Christopher Guly 22 Jul

Tyee frequent contributor Christopher Guly is an Ottawa-based journalist and member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Pope Francis arrives in Edmonton on Sunday morning as part of a six-day “Walking Together” tour that will also finding him stopping at other sites in Alberta, as well as Quebec City and Iqaluit.

It will be an unprecedented papal visit focused on one theme: healing and reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous communities scarred by a mainly Catholic Church-run system of residential schools that more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend between the 1870s and 1990s.

While in Canada, the pontiff is expected to offer a second apology, following the one he delivered at the Vatican in April to an Indigenous delegation.

Much rests on the specific wording of the apology and the degree of the church’s responsibility it signals. Among the 94 Calls to Action in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report was this:

“We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic run residential schools.”

With his words and actions Pope Francis will be communicating to a second audience. He will be speaking to a Canadian Catholic Church whose clerics are divided on the church’s role in advocating for social justice, and whose dwindling members pay fading attention to what is preached from the pulpit.

‘Struggling to adapt to new realities’

Canada’s Catholic church is “struggling to find its place in society,” according to David Seljak, a professor in the department of religious studies at St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo.

“Canadian society has changed so dramatically over the last 50 years, and the kind of church you have was one well-suited to Canada maybe 40 years ago and it’s now struggling to adapt to new realities,” said Seljak, a practising Catholic.

“One of the biggest changes is the rise of what we call religious nones — people in Canada who say that they have no religious identification, but may practise a kind of personal spirituality — and some of them may go to church once in a while. But they no longer have the kind of strong Catholic identity the previous generation did. So they’re less likely to be church attendees, call themselves Catholic or to really care what the bishops have to say.”

He explained that in the 1970s, Catholics may have opposed the church’s position on birth control and abortion. “Now they don’t care — and that’s the big difference,” said Seljak.

Although data on religiosity gathered from last year’s national census has yet to be released, a decade ago 38.7 per cent of the Canada’s population identified themselves as Roman Catholic, according to the 2011 National Household Survey.

In second place, were the so-called “nones,” roughly 7,850,600 people, or nearly one-quarter of Canada’s population (23.9 per cent), which had no religious affiliation — a 16.5 per-cent increase from a decade earlier. Seljak expects that most British Columbians, for example, will identify as non-religious come the next census asking questions on religiosity in 2031.

Two years ago, Statistics Canada released the results of a study on religiosity in Canada. It found the Catholic percentage of the population had dropped to 32 per cent, while those with no religious affiliation had increased to 26 per cent.

Of the Catholics, only 17 per cent reported attending a religious service at least once a week, and 38 per cent said the importance of their religious or spiritual beliefs “in how to live one’s life” was either “not very important or not important at all.”

In Seljak’s view, the Catholic Church’s challenge in Canada is to address a generational change. Many Catholics have left, angry about leadership or teaching. “But their children have never been to church,” said Seljak, who added that Catholic schools across Canada are also finding their classrooms filled with fewer Catholic students.

Pope Francis’s visit has the potential to break through some of that complacency among Canadian Catholics by demonstrating the church’s commitment to social issues, notes Seljak. During his tour, the pope will be laser-focused on “a theme that he sees as fundamental to society’s well-being.”

“Early in his papacy, he said the church should be a field hospital and that people in modern society have deep spiritual wounds and are suffering, yet the church is asking them about birth control or homosexuality,” said Seljak.

“Francis is trying to communicate that there are urgent spiritual problems that are threatening civilization, threatening humanity,” said Seljak. He referred to Francis’s papal encyclical letter on fraternity and social friendship in which he wrote, Seljak said, about “living peacefully and joyfully together instead of promoting war, misinformation, hostility toward immigrants, racism.”

Seljak noted that a previous Francis encyclical focused on the environment and the ecological crisis.

“One of the hopeful things is that Francis is coming to a Roman Catholic Church where people care about reconciliation,” he said.

Quebec is home to ‘hands-on theology’

In his socially engaged message, the pope may find a more receptive leadership and flock in Canada than south of the border, Seljak observed. In the United States, there is a “hard-right core” of bishops who “really resist Francis’s brand of Catholicism — to the point where many of them think that he is a false pope,” he said, adding that American Catholic bishops also have more sway over U.S. politics, largely due to their “co-operation and collaboration with the evangelical community.”

“They find it easier to co-operate with conservative evangelicals than with liberal Catholics,” he said.

Canada’s bishops, meanwhile, are more aligned with Pope Francis on social issues, such as prelates heading francophone dioceses in Quebec — “more progressive and politically involved” than their anglophone counterparts in the rest of the country in Seljak’s view.

“Catholicism was so much a part of Quebec culture that bishops continue to see themselves speaking to Quebec society instead of being hived off from it,” explained Seljak, who holds a PhD from McGill University in the sociology of religion, with a focus on religion and nationalism in Quebec.

“English-language bishops used to be much more involved in political debates. They used to talk about the economy, about the environment, about agriculture, about women. More and more they’re just talking about church topics — the sacraments, spirituality. It’s almost as if there’s a retreat from society, from social engagement.”

“They’re much more inward-looking and the Quebec bishops tend to be outward-looking — which is what Francis is really trying to push people to be and drop some of the traditional Catholic themes,” said Seljak.

Emma Anderson, a professor in the department of classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa, also believes that the church in Quebec more closely follows Pope Francis’s pastoral direction. “Based on my interviews with Catholic clergy in Canada, Québécois clergy tend to be a lot more left-leaning and anglophone more centrist — even more right, particularly the younger priests.”

She explained that Quebec priests are more focused on “hands-on theology, like feeding the homeless, reaching out to drug addicts — more outreach to the community.”

Meantime, mainly younger, English-speaking priests — and laity — seem to be disenchanted with the reforms — such as mass no longer celebrated only in Latin — introduced through Vatican II in the early 1960s, and hold “traditional views about gender, sexuality, reproductive rights and women’s leadership in the church,” explained Anderson, who holds a PhD in religious studies — specializing in North American religious history — from Harvard University.

The Kamloops find ‘shocked and horrified’

But Anderson said that Pope Francis is also coming to a Canadian Catholic Church “largely battered” by the “disturbing” detection on May 27, 2021 of the suspected remains of 215 children buried in unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops.

“It shocked and horrified a lot of people, and made something evident and real that hadn’t been for people who didn’t study it in school, and that it involved bodies unaccounted for and illicitly interred,” said Anglican-raised Anderson, who noted that flags on federal government buildings remained at half-mast for months afterward, long past Canada Day.

She said that initially, the Canadian bishops did not handle news of the discovery well. They were “defensive” and only responded when Canadians displayed outrage.

However, Anderson said that Pope Francis was quicker to respond. On Sunday, June 6, 2021, the pontiff said that he was following “with sorrow” news about the discovery and that he joined “the Canadian bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing [his] closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by this shocking news.”

“This sad discovery further heightens awareness of the pain and sufferings of the past,” Pope Francis said. “May the political and religious authorities in Canada continue to work together with determination to shed light on this sad event and humbly commit themselves to a path of healing and reconciliation. These difficult times are a strong call for everyone to turn away from the colonial model and also from the ideological colonizations of the present, and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.”

This week, Pope Francis will travel to Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta, the site of an annual pilgrimage that welcomes tens of thousands of Indigenous participants from throughout Canada and the U.S. each year.

Two days later, the pope will travel to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Quebec, where he will celebrate mass at one of the oldest and most popular pilgrimage sites in North America, drawing more than a million visitors to the site (including an annual Indigenous pilgrimage) each year. Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and Jesus’s grandmother, is the patron saint of Quebec.

Anderson said that in venerating an “older and wiser” female saint, Anne fits within Indigenous cultural tradition of honouring “direct experience as the best way of accumulating knowledge and wisdom.”

“I think part of it is that Saint Anne is a female elder and she’s one of the few female saints who has a bit of age on her. Most of the female saints you see depicted in Catholic churches are beautiful and young and dewy. Even the Virgin Mary — you see her clutching the body of her son looking younger than her dead child.”  [Tyee]

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