Quebec’s politicians are debating two pieces of controversial legislation right under the crucifix that adorns the legislative chamber in Quebec City. Register file photo.

Quebec’s Catholic paradox

By 
  • February 16, 2014

The seeming uncomfortable paradox of the Catholic Church in Quebec is illuminated by two pieces of legislation making their way through the province’s National Assembly.

The first is the Parti Quebecois government’s prized Charter of Values, which has drawn fire for stripping citizens of the right to wear religious symbols in public sector work places while simultaneously affirming the propriety of keeping a crucifix in the legislative chamber.

The province’s Catholic bishops of course recognize the cultural and historic importance of the crucifix to Quebecers. But they have expressed uneasiness, to put it mildly, at this crucial Christian sign being publicly emptied of all religious significance. Their uneasiness increases exponentially when the laws being proposed in the legislative chamber itself amount to an assault on the very heart of the faith.

One such legal proposal in particular, a bill that will codify euthanasia under the pretext of “medical aid in dying,” provides the second part of the Catholic Quebec paradox. The bill has been pushed relentlessly forward, under the very crucifix in question, despite fierce opposition from all corners of the Church.

In early February, Montreal Archbishop Christian Lepine took the unusual step of buying advertising in the city’s daily newspapers to condemn the euthanasia legislation in freshly blunt language.

“To bring on death prematurely is not to help someone to die but to cause someone to die,” the archbishop says. “It is giving doctors the power to kill vulnerable patients in certain circumstances.”

Lepine’s paid-for message followed a letter from the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops that was read aloud in churches across the province on Feb. 9. It urged the faithful to pray on the World Day of the Sick so that legislators’ hearts might be touched by the Spirit and turned from passing the euthanasia bill. While those engaged in the anti-euthanasia cause doubtless welcomed the bishops’ assertive gestures and the messages, only the most fervently optimistic expected that those voting under the cross would actually heed the Church’s call.

In that respect, the legislators would actually be following, not leading, the society they represent. As eminent Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby has reported, Quebecers 80-per-cent attendance rate at Mass in the 1960s — the highest church attendance in North America at the time — had dropped to 25 per cent by 2007, and will fall by virtue of demographics to 15 per cent within this decade. Yet, Bibby notes, 83 per cent of Quebecers still consider themselves Catholics, down from 88 per cent in 1961.

“What’s more, few are open to switching to other religions,” Bibby says. “The majority continue to embrace traditional beliefs about God, the divinity of Jesus, and life-after-death. Some three in four pray privately, close to two in four at least once a week. Most continue to turn to the Catholic Church for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Less than 15 per cent have stopped attending services altogether.”

Like their political leaders, Quebecers want the symbol of the cross, but not the reality of the Church. They want to see a sign but be left to decide for themselves the way it points, or whether to follow it at all.

Douglas Farrow, McGill University’s Professor of Christian Thought and newly appointed Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies, sees that sociological data as the legacy of what he calls “Kulturkatholizismus” that lingers on at the parish level in place of genuine faith. Citing the Gospel of Mark, Farrow says Christ Himself must marvel mightily at Quebecers’ degree of unbelief. He lays the blame squarely on the post-1960s clergy’s failure to teach the Catholic faith robustly.

“We need to be taught boldly,” Farrow says. “Christ needs to be proclaimed boldly.” As executive director of Quebec’s English Speaking Catholic Council, Farrow’s wife, Anna, also sees milquetoast homilies and dangerous demography as two of the key threats to Catholic parish life. She identifies a third risk, however, in an area that many others welcome as essential to Catholic renewal: the lay movements such as Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation that operate at a kind of para-parish level.

She is quick to emphasize that she understands such organizations to be an effect, rather than a cause, of parish breakdown. Effects, though, can themselves become causes.

“The emergence of those organizations (means) ardent Catholics find a place for community and spiritual growth outside the walls of the parish. I know why that is, because the parish can be a pretty desolate place.

“But all that energy gets channelled into the internal workings of those communities, and individuals receive a sense of fellowship and nourishment through participating in those communities. And then your ordinary Joe Blow Catholic, who comes to Mass every once in a while and got the snip after the second child, and proclaims loudly that he would like someone to slip him a nice cocktail of drugs when he reaches a certain age, doesn’t actually see, in action, those ‘ardent’ Catholics living the life,” says Farrow.

“There needs to be an emphasis on the parish as the nucleus of Catholic, Gospel living because the parish is the intersection of the ardent and the not-so-ardent, between those who are committed and those who are seeking a place to commit, between faith and unbelief.”

An ersatz “intersection” in place of the parish seems to be the naming of Quebecbased saints by the Church. Earlier this month, Church authorities admitted to some celestial “corner cutting” in declaring the Mother of the Canadian Church, Blessed Marie de l’Incarnation and Blessed Francois de Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, will soon be joined to the communion of saints.

They will join St. Brother André Bessette (2010) and St. Kateri Tekakwitha (2012) in the ranks of recently canonized Quebecers.

Even Quebec Catholics who could not find the door of a church with a GPS tend to greet such announcements with the civic pride reserved elsewhere for athletic or entertainment industry demi-gods.

That pride persists despite succeeding generations of Quebecers being steeped in the history, story or mythology — depending on your point of view — of the Grande Noirceur: the Great Darkness that purportedly prevailed in Quebec from the mid-20th century until the Quiet Revolution ushered in enlightened secularism at the advent of the 1960s.

For McGill historian John Zucchi, whose newest book is a study of the Canadian College in Rome, reports of the Grande Noirceur have some truth mixed with a large amount of political spin.

“The collaboration between the Church and the State has been exaggerated,” Zucchi says. “The Church may have collaborated (with the arch-conservative government of Premier Maurice Duplessis) and certainly some priests and bishops collaborated more than others. But there were also many tensions between Church and State, and some bishops deeply mistrusted Duplessis and his motives.

“If we accept the mythology, then it should not stop with 1960 as regards collaboration. One can argue that the collaboration of the Grande Noirceur became the paradigm for the Quiet Revolution as well. The tragedy of the Church’s approach in post-Duplessis Quebec right up until quite recent times was to collaborate with the State in the nationalist project,” says Zucchi.

“I say tragedy because the Church simply became a courtier of the State, as we saw in the mid-1990s when Church leaders offered no resistance to the removal of constitutional protection of Catholic schools in the province.”

Against that history, Zucchi sees a hopeful movement “beyond the blind faith in the State” that is embodied in a new generation of leaders such as Montreal’s Lepine and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Dowd, as well as Quebec’s Cardinal-designate Gerald Lacroix, the archbishop of Quebec City who will receive his red hat on Feb. 22. All three are examples of churchmen schooled in the blunt orthodoxy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI but able to translate it seamlessly into the openness and inclusiveness promised by the arrival of Pope Francis.

Dowd, in particular, fits that bill, having been made a bishop when he was just 40 in 2011, only a decade after being ordained to the priesthood. Nicknamed “the BlogFather” because of his embrace of social media at a time when older clerics barely knew what the Internet was, he is fervent about multiplatform communication and confident that the story telling power of the Church is key to its renewal in Quebec.

“The Church doesn’t just have a history, it has a story,” Dowd says. “It is a story that starts with the creation of the universe and will continue until the end of history when Christ returns. Thanks to prophecy, we even have an outline of how the final chapters of that story will run. This is an ultimate metanarrative — it just can’t get more ‘meta’ than that. Even the Grande Noirceur narrative must yield to it.”

Dowd is equally confident that what he calls the “Francis effect” will help significantly in convincing Quebec Catholics to let go of an antecedent story originating long before many of them — including himself — were born. It won’t, he warns, be enough by itself.

“We need a strategy of evangelization that proclaims Jesus Christ as the meeting point between God’s story, humanity’s story and our story as individuals and as a local culture. This strategy has to be more than presenting historical or theological facts because people today are not asking themselves ‘why should I believe?’ but rather ‘so what if I believe or not?’ It should always involve an invitation to faith in Christ, with faith presented not just as intellectual assent but a true pledge of loyalty and confidence in Him.”

Veteran Montreal religion journalist Alan Hustak agrees with Dowd that the approach of Pope Francis’ has not only turned heads but may well be the overture to let many Quebec Catholics overcome their decadesold anger at the Church and return to the pews.

“If I could ask God to do one thing, it would be to let those in Quebec who claim to speak in His name recognize they are there to guide us, to inspire us, to teach us, not to dictate to us, wag their fingers of shame at us or oppress us with hypocrisy,” Hustak says. “They should kind of do what (Pope Francis) is trying to do. I still haven’t heard many ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ from this Pope.”

A long-time reporter for Montreal’s The Gazette newspaper and now a writer for the Catholic news site Ville Marie Online, Hustak is adamant the Church in Quebec must go even further than it already has in admitting its faults, particularly with regards to priestly sexual abuse of children, if it is to ever regain the true faith of those who are content to live as mere cultural Catholics.

“The damage done has poisoned many people who want to believe but who can no longer put their trust in the institutional Church. (Catholics) in Quebec have not rejected God; they have turned their backs on the institutional Church that betrayed them,” he says.

His journalistic instinct matches that of scholar Jason Zuidema, a Protestant who has spent the past several years researching the future of Catholic religious orders in Canada and Quebec. Zuidema says his research has convinced him the Catholic Church will grow again only when it truly recognizes and internalizes how small it has really become, whatever the raw demographic data might say to the contrary.

“The Church needs to get out of a majoritarian mentality and start understanding the world as do all minorities,” Zuidema says. “The Church is already being marginalized. That it doesn’t realize it stems from being unable to shift from the ‘majoritarian’ to ‘minoritarian’ mentality.”

Such a shift would require the Church to recognize that the insistence of largely Catholic legislators to vote against the teachings of the faith in the presence of a crucifix on the wall need not be an uncomfortable paradox at all. It might instead be the recognition of reality that is the first step of any genuine renewal. If it doesn’t bring Quebecers in droves back to the Church door, it will at least be an incontrovertible sign that the door is well and truly open.

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

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