Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica-Cathedral in Quebec City CNS photo/courtesy of International Eucharistic Congress

Culture has turned into Quebec’s new religion

By  Peter Stuart
  • January 17, 2012

QUEBEC CITY - It used to be that Quebecers who wanted to hear good preaching or be instructed on right and wrong went to Mass on Sunday and listened to their priest. The clergy were the principle arbiters of public and private morality in all spheres of life in Quebec. They preached on everything from how to dress, who to consort with (or not) and what to read, think vote and so on.

One famous saying from this era — “heaven is blue and hell is red” — was a not-so-veiled reference to  vote Conservative in elections. The Church believed the “red” Liberals stood for secular reform and social change that would lead people away from their faith. And that’s what happened, people eventually voted red in order to hasten improvements in material living standards and, as predicted, what eventually followed was a widespread abandonment of faith in Quebec.

Most Quebecers came to equate being poor with being Catholic churchgoers, whereas social and economic emancipation become synonymous with the “new religion” of big government and the rising secular state. A new sense of self awareness was accompanied by an embrace of the powerful and populist “liberation theology” of secessionism, which still lingers, along with a religious fervour concerning defence and promotion of the French language.

But today a powerful new discourse has arisen that is founded on a commercialized form of  popular culture. In the new Quebec, culture is the new theology and its promoters and defenders are the new high priests. In Quebec, culture is now sacrosanct. Around here people can’t do enough for the cause of culture. Anybody who publicly takes a stand against the idea of having more as opposed to less culture in the public domain, whether it be art galleries, exhibits, festivals and shows of all sorts, is branded as a heretic.

People such as musicians and especially stand-up comedians are regarded almost like a new priestly caste. Not a day passes when some stand-up comedian isn’t opening some new travelling show that promotes some sort of pet cause. Rather than a faith-based agenda, they promote an awareness agenda for social causes like aid for the handicapped or mentally ill or sundry social-justice causes. Quebecers have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

When Roman Catholicism was dominant, the clergy were genuinely interested in saving our souls and had people’s spiritual well-being at heart. The price paid for a seat at church via the collection basket was a pittance compared to what people now spend to attend entertainment events that sermonize on whatever pet social cause an artist happens to be plugging as they line their pockets with the proceeds.

It used to be that the Church helped Quebecers choose what to do and how to think. Now they have entertainers pontificating in that role. It’s ironic that Quebecers say they have “freed” themselves from the influence of the Church only to have traded one type of sermon for another.

These secular sermons cost more and, in their promotion of a range of feel-good causes, fail to advance public morality or ethics the way the Church once did. Additionally, the secular preachers face little accountability for their behaviour, unlike Catholic clerics who have every aspect of their public and private lives scrutinized by the secular media. Instead, they are considered stars and placed at the front of a cultural movement that is all about whatever flavour-of-the-month social cause is being peddled in the public forum.

In the end, Quebecers have become temporally rich but spiritually poor. They have traded in the parish priest for the secular preacher. That regrettable transformation is becoming evident in the substance of Quebec’s social fabric and in the tone and quality of its public discourse. Yet people are unwilling to acknowledge it or, worse, are completely oblivious to how Quebec has become a media-driven secular society.

Personally, I’ll stick with going to Mass on Sunday and getting my preaching from an authentic source.

(Stuart is co-author of The Catholic Faith and the Social Construction of Religion.)

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