Weakened religious identity is at the root of Quebec’s problems

By  Cardinal Marc Ouellet
  • November 8, 2007
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a brief presented by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, archbishop of Quebec, to that province’s Commission on Reasonable Accommodation (Bouchard-Taylor Commission) on Oct. 30. Translated from the French by Catholic Register staff.

ouellet-cns.jpgThe debate on reasonable accommodation and its emotional impact forced Quebec society into an exercise of listening, reflection and dialogue about the place of religion in the public sphere. It is fortunate that a broad forum chaired by two well-known personalities allows us to calmly lead this reflection and dialogue on the current malaise, its causes, issues and solutions. Quebec society is now faced with a choice which requires from individuals and institutional authorities of the state, churches and various religious groups a serious review of the situation and a true and sincere dialogue in order to wisely decide the way forward to live together harmoniously in the coming decades.

Daring an in-depth dialogue

From the outset, I declare my belief that the crisis of values and the quest for meaning in Quebec is so serious and urgent that they have a serious impact on public health, which creates huge costs for the health system. Quebec society has rested for 400 years on two pillars: French culture and the Catholic religion, which form the base that has enabled them to integrate other elements of their current pluralist identity. It is, however, undermined by the weakening of the religious identity of its French-speaking majority.

The current debate directly affects religion and the relationship between cultural communities, but the real problem is not that of the integration of immigrants made more difficult to accommodate because of their religious claims. Statistics show that requests for accommodation for religious reasons are minimal, indicating that the reason for the current tension lies elsewhere. Let us not place the burden of a deep crisis in Quebec society on those who have come to seek refuge or a land of welcome, or on their religion which we judge to be invasive. Refugees and immigrants often bring the richness of their witness and their cultural values, which add to the common values of Quebec society. Reception, sharing and solidarity must remain the basis for our attitudes towards immigrants and their religious and human needs.

The real problem is not “the place of religion in the public sphere,” to take back that term, desirably vague, which facilitates the spread of the slogan in vogue: “religion in private life or at the church, but not in the public square.” What is the public space? The street, the park, the airwaves, school, town hall, the national assembly? Should we remove from the public square the monument dedicated to Msgr. Francois de Laval and that dedicated to Cardinal Taschereau? Should we ban the wish “Merry Christmas” in the parliamentary precinct and replace it with “Happy Holidays” to be more inclusive? Have the religious symbols characteristic of our history, and therefore of our collective identity, become nuisances and bad memories to be stored away in the cupboard? Should we eliminate them from the public sphere in order to satisfy a radical secularized minority, which only complains in the name of the absolute equality of citizens?

Believers and unbelievers carry with them belief or unbelief in all areas they frequent. They are called to live together, to accept and respect one another mutually, to not impose their belief or their unbelief, neither in private nor in public. Removing all religious symbols from a public place culturally identified by a well-defined tradition with its religious dimension, is this not the same as promoting unbelief as the only value with the right to be promoted? The presence of the crucifix in the national assembly, at City Hall and at the crossroads is not a sign of any state religion. It is a sign of identity and culture linked to a concrete history of a real population entitled to the continuity of its institutions and symbols. This symbol is not primarily a confessional sign but a witness to the cultural heritage of a society marked by its historic vocation as the cradle of evangelization in North America. Removing this would mean a cultural rupture, a denial of what we have been and what we are called to be as a  community historically based on the values of Christianity.

The real problem

The real problem in Quebec is not the presence of religious signs or the emergence of new invasive religious symbols in public spaces. The real problem in Quebec is the spiritual vacuum created by a religious and cultural rupture, a substantial loss of memory, leading to a crisis of the family and education, leaving citizens confused, demoralized, prone to instability and relying on transient and superficial values. This spiritual and symbolic void inside Quebec culture disperses its vital energy and creates insecurity, for want of roots in and continuity with the sacramental and evangelical values that have nurtured it since its beginning.

A people whose identity has been strongly configured for centuries by the Catholic faith cannot from one day to the next (a few decades are short in the life of a people) empty itself of substance without resulting in serious consequences at all levels. Hence the confusion of youth, plummetting marriages, the minuscule birth rate and the staggering number of abortions and suicides, to name only a few of the consequences added to the precarious situation of the elderly and public health. On top of that, this spiritual and cultural void is maintained by anti-Catholic rhetoric stuffed with clichés, unfortunately found all too often in the media. This fosters a culture of contempt and shame with respect to our religious heritage, which is destroying the soul of Quebec. It is high time to ask: Quebec, what did you do for your baptism? It is high time that we apply the brakes to secular fundamentalism. . . and we recover a better balance in Quebec between tradition and creative innovation in the service of the common good. We must relearn that respect for religion which has shaped the identity of the people and respect for all religions without yielding to pressure from the secular fundamentalists who clamour for the exclusion of religion from public life.

Quebec is ripe for a new profound evangelization that is taking shape in some quarters through important catechetical initiatives, as well as through community efforts to return to the roots of our history. Our society needs a movement of conversion to its deep spiritual values and a new alliance between its faith that has become dormant and passive and the emerging common culture that is searching for its roots. A spiritual and cultural renewal is possible if the dialogue between the state, society and the church resumes its course, constructive and respectful of our collective identity now becoming pluralistic.

Religious freedom threatened

As part of the debate on reasonable accommodation, we cannot ignore the radical change that the Quebec government has introduced regarding the place of religion in schools. This change provokes the dismay and anger of many parents who see privatized their acquired rights in the name of an ultimate reform and modernization of the education system in Quebec. Without taking into account the primacy of parents’ rights and their clearly expressed willingness to maintain the freedom of choice between religious education and moral education, the state suppresses all confessional teaching and imposes a course in ethics and religious culture in schools both public and private and without possibility of exemption. No European nation has ever adopted a policy that radical which overturns the convictions and religious freedom of its citizens. Hence the profound unease of many families, coupled with a sense of impotence in the face of an all-powerful state that no longer fears, it seems, the influence of the church and, therefore, can impose its law without major constraint. Most shocking is the fate of private Catholic schools, which are forced by the game of government subsidies to marginalize their own religious education classes for the benefit of state courses imposed everywhere and at all levels.

Is this operation of reshaping the ethical and religious formation of citizens through this obligatory course going to succeed at saving a minimum of reference points to assure a harmonious life together? I doubt it, and I am even convinced of the contrary, because this operation comes at the expense of the religious freedom of citizens, especially that of the Catholic majority. As well, it is based solely on a “knowledge” of the beliefs and rituals of six or seven religions. I doubt that even the very few teachers equipped to meet this challenge can teach in a neutral and critical manner concepts they will understand even less than their own religion. It takes a lot of naivete to believe this miracle of instruction in the culture of religions is going to produce a new little Quebecois pluralist, expert on interreligious relations and critical towards all beliefs, even those of his own parents. . . . 


The rural Quebec culture exposes a cross almost everywhere at crossroads. This “cross of the road” invites us to pray and reflect on the meaning of life. What choice can society make so that the state takes decisions that clearly and truly respect the religious consciences of individuals, groups and the churches? Despite some deviations due to recurrent outbreaks but limited to fanaticism, religion remains a source of inspiration and a force of peace in the world and in our society, unless it is manipulated by political interests or harassed in its legitimate aspirations. . . .

Quebec is still living the legacy of a religious tradition, strong and supportive, free of major conflicts and characterized by sharing, hospitality for the stranger and compassion for the less fortunate. We must protect and nurture this religious heritage based on the love that is a force for social integration much more effective than abstract knowledge of a few superficial notions from six or seven religions. It is particularly important at the moment that the Catholic majority wakes up, to recognize its true spiritual needs, and that it returns to its traditional practices so as to be equal to the mission entrusted to it since its beginning. May the wisdom of God inspire the recommendations of the commissioners so that religious freedom as a primordial and permanent value flourishes in Quebec and gives it its reasons for living.

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