Religion and a secular charter for Quebec

By Father John Walsh on October 19, 2012

I grew up in Montreal when the French-speaking Roman Catholic Church was literally present everywhere, from the opening prayer at a hockey tournament to the blessing of a beauty salon.  The hierarchy and the local clergy were the Church.   They were placed on pedestals with the expectation that they could solve all problems and do no wrong.   The religious, priests, brothers and religious women (nuns) ran the schools, hospitals, orphanages and every institution that dealt with the lives of French-speaking people in Quebec.   The educational system offered a classical education which meant that the French-speaking students were not introduced into the world of science where progress was exponential and the system also left them without an understanding of the impact of economic development.  

The English-speaking system of education was guaranteed by the British North American Act and science and economics became their foundation.  Two solitudes ensued.  As a result, anti-clericalism ensued from an overly dominant Roman Catholic Church.  The Church faced its greatest challenge during the world-wide cultural revolution of the 1960’s, and, in Quebec, it became known as the “Quiet Revolution.” The Church fell into disarray, its power was reduced, close to extinction, and it was confined to a role in liturgical ceremonies and in the family.  Religion was being privatized.  

The Revolution resulted in secular French-speaking Quebecers succeeding at an incredible pace and soon the Church that had been so influential was left without any influence in the public domain.  The world of Quebec was becoming more and more secular.  In Civil Law, the laws regarding marriage which had been drawn from the Church’s Code of Canon Law were replaced with laws adjusted to a new secular Quebec.  Secular society adopted the new Civil Code; while the Church functioned outside the current Civil Code and continued to follow the Code of Canon Law.  The separation of Church and State is not a Constitutional reality in Canada or in Quebec, as it is in the United States; it is a recognized practical norm for society.  In Quebec, in the 1960’s ninety percent attended Church weekly; today the numbers are less than eight percent who practice regularly.  

Canadian and Quebec societies had, prior to the past 40 years, welcomed immigrants from Eastern Europe who were generally of a Judaeo-Christian heritage.  Now, immigration provides a religious diversity not seen or experienced before.   Quebec was no longer a Christian society.  The immediate difference was that of dress.  The Hijabs and Burkas of Muslims were strikingly different; carrying a ceremonial knife, a kirpan, became a contentious issue; and the building of Mosques and Sikh temples changed the architectural outline of Montreal neighborhoods.   The influx of these external realities caused consternation.  

The Judaeo-Christian label was transformed into an inter-faith cacophony of language and traditions, a conglomeration of customs they brought from their homelands.  A society that was transforming itself in a “quiet” revolution into a secular society now saw the new secular-religious confrontations as retrograde.  Society would not go back on what it had worked so hard to accomplish.   The only option was to privatize all religions, remove all the externals, forbid their presence in the public domain, and offer a secular charter to the people of Quebec for the purpose of harmony among all people secular and religious.  

Christian Catholics in Quebec would do well to recover a period of its history when Christians were called upon to adapt the expression of their faith that was well-rooted in a Jewish culture to find a new expression of their faith in a Hellenistic culture.   In fact often in its history the Roman Catholic Church has had to adapt its cultural expression of Christian Catholic faith.  The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is described by Pope John XXIII as a Pastoral Council of the Roman Catholic Church and he indicated that the greatest challenge of the Church is to express faith in a contemporary context of culture.

In Quebec, Christian Catholics face a rare opportunity to build a new local Catholic culture to express faith in a culture that is secular and this is no greater a challenge than that faced in its Hellenistic adaptation of faith, or, at any other time when adaptation of faith to culture became necessary.   The Universal Church has declared this year a year of faith, Porta Fidei, and the title of the Synod of Bishop in October is A New Evangelization: The transmission of the Christian faith.  It will take a measure of evangelical creativity and boldness to renew the ordinary pastoral activity of the Church of Quebec and to find an expression of Christian-Catholic faith in a new Catholic culture adapted to a secular society that has developed a secular charter.



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