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Catholic Baptisms Plummet in Secular Quebec

A priest baptizes a baby in a church in Tourcoing, northern France, on July 21, 2013. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)
PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty
THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, PH.D.

Annual Catholic baptisms in Quebec fell by a striking 30 percent in the five years from 2012 to 2017, according to the Quebec Assembly of Catholic Bishops.

In 2012, Quebec parents had 42,213 children baptized, whereas in 2017 nearly a third fewer — 30,394 — were baptized in the once overwhelmingly Catholic Canadian province.

In total, in Quebec, 83,900 babies were born in 2017, meaning that just over 35 percent of the children were baptized.

“As soon as religion was taken out of schools, we expected declines,” said Germain Tremblay, deputy general secretary of the Quebec Assembly of Catholic Bishops. “We are at a moment in our history when religious practice is in decline. What will be interesting to see now is when the data will stabilize.”

Analysts expect religious marriages in Catholic churches to also become increasingly rare, since one of the two future spouses must have received all the sacraments to be entitled to the ceremony.

Louise Thibault, who has been responsible for the baptisms of young people in the diocese of Montreal for the past 20 years said she is not surprised by the rapid decline in the number of baptisms, given parents’ general lack of interest in the faith.

“Even when parents decide to have their child baptized, it is rarely with great enthusiasm,” she said. “We hear: ‘It cannot hurt her,’ or ‘My mother was baptized, my grandmother too, so …’”

“Baptism is not yet folklore, but it is getting close to it,” she said.

According to Nicole Boisvert, a pastoral volunteer for baptism, birth certificates have replaced baptisms, schools no longer offer religious education and CCD classes are given on Sunday rather than at school.

“It is the hour of secularization,” she said.

In point of fact, Quebec’s secularization has been going on for decades. Once deeply religious and the “greatest bastion of French Catholic piety outside the motherland,” Quebec underwent rapid change during the 1960s thanks to what has come to be known as its “Quiet Revolution,” ushered in by the election of the Liberals of Jean Lesage in 1960.

In this period of accelerated modernization, no institution in Quebec was more affected than the Roman Catholic Church. The French language replaced the Catholic faith as the pillar of Quebec’s distinctive identity.

During this period, the state took over formerly Catholic schools and hospitals and church attendance declined precipitously. In just ten years, Quebec went from being the province with the highest birthrate in Canada to that with the lowest.

Seen in this light, the drop in baptisms over the last five years may represent nothing more than the logical fallout of this secularizing trend, as even nominal membership in the Church no longer holds value for many Québécois.

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