'Spiritual void' a problem in Quebec

  • November 14, 2007
{mosimage}OTTAWA - The collapse of Catholicism, not the demands of religious minorities, is responsible for Quebec’s profound anxiety over reasonable accommodation, according to Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

The archbishop of Quebec and primate of the Catholic Church in Canada waded into the reasonable accommodation debate with a defense of Quebec’s Catholic heritage in his Oct. 30 presentation before the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec City. The commission is travelling throughout the province, investigating the causes of the current tension concerning minority religions.

Ouellet described Quebec society as having rested on two pillars over the past 400 years: the French culture and the Catholic religion. Those foundations made it possible to integrate other components of its pluralistic identity. The francophone majority’s religious identity has weakened, making society fragile.

“The real problem in Quebec is not the presence of religious symbols or the appearance of new religious symbols in public spaces,” he said. “The real problem in Quebec is the spiritual void created by the religious and cultural rupture.”

This has led to a substantial loss of memory, leading to a crisis in the family and in education, he said. Citizens have been left “disoriented, unmotivated, subject to instability and leaning on transient, superficial values.”

Ouellet described the crisis as profound and urgent, with grave repercussions for public health because the collapse has created confusion among youth, led to a plummeting number of marriages, a  “tiny” birth rate and a “staggering” number of abortions and suicides.

Anti-Catholic rhetoric in the news media that treats Quebec’s religious heritage as a source of shame and contempt “destroys the soul of Quebec,” he said.

“Have the religious symbols characteristic of our history and therefore of our collective identity become nuisances and bad memories to put away in a cupboard?” he asked.

He urged respect for the religion that has shaped the identity of most Quebeckers as well as respect for other religions without yielding to pressure from the “fundamentalists” who would exclude religion from public space.

“What is that public space?” he asked, noting the street, the park, the airwaves, the schools, the town halls. He asked if that meant getting rid of public monuments to religious figures from Quebec’s past, or removing crucifixes from public buildings. Would it mean ceasing to say “Merry Christmas” in the halls of government and exchanging it with a bland, inclusive “Happy Holidays”?

Believers and unbelievers carry their creed or unbelief to all areas they attend, he said. Removing all religious symbols from public spaces would promote unbelief as the only value with the right to show itself in public.

“The presence of the crucifix in the National Assembly, at City Hall and at the crossroads (in rural Quebec) is not a sign of any state religion,” he said. “It is a sign of identity and cultural history tied to a concrete real population who is entitled to the continuity of its institutions and symbols.”

This symbol is not primarily a religious sign but a witness to the cultural heritage of a society marked by its being the historical cradle of evangelization in North America, he said. Removing it would mean a cultural break, “a denial of what we have been and what we are called to be as an historic community based on the values of Christianity.”

Ouellet also recognized the pluralistic nature of Quebec. “Refugees and immigrants have brought us the richness of their witness and their cultural values that have added to the common values of Quebec society,” he said, noting the number of actual requests for accommodation is small.

“Welcome, sharing and solidarity must remain the basis for attitudes towards immigrants and their religious and human needs,” he said.

Ouellet also warned of the grave threat to religious freedom posed by Quebec’s Bill 95 that will impose a mandatory course presenting the views of six or seven religions on all schools next year, both public and private. “No European nation has ever adopted a policy that radical, overturning the convictions and religious freedoms of its citizens,” he said.

He said the course’s “dictatorship of relativism is likely to make even more difficult the transmission of our religious heritage.” He objected to the state’s interference in parents’ rights to choose between moral or confessional teachings in the schools.

In an interview following his presentation, Ouellet said he had issued a call to the Catholic majority in Quebec to be more proud of their rituals, customs and symbols and more open to the Gospel values of charity in building a harmonious society.

He described three decades of radical secularization as leading to a “dead end if we continue in this way.”

“The times are right for a sort of religious revival that will also apply to the rest of Canada,” he said.

Openness to others and welcoming newcomers from other traditions “does not remove our right to be ourselves,” he said.

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