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The cultural disintegration of Catholicism in Quebec.

Egards (Considerations) is a new conservative quarterly review published in Quebec, edited by Luc Gagnon and Jean Renaud (see News in Brief, C.I., Jan./04). An article by Luc Gagnon in its first issue Fall of 2003, deals with the troubling situation of the Catholic Church in Quebec, The following is a translated summary and paraphrase of the contents of the article by Brigid Elson.--Editor

The writer begins by citing a shocking statement made to the Quebec bishops at their March 2001 meeting in Cap-de-la-Madeleine. Fr. Gilles Routhier, a church historian teaching at Laval, told the bishops that if present trends were to continue and nothing done to reintroduce Quebec to the Christian experience, in a few years' time there would be the bare minimum of celebrants required to hold a large public liturgy in the province. The Church there, he noted, had come to the end of a long road of folklorization by which a huge gap could be seen between sacramental practices like Baptism, marriage or and actual commitment to the faith of Catholicism as defined its catechism.

Bishops like Msgr. Morisette of Baie-Comeau, a former president of the Quebec Bishops' Conference, recognize the truth of Routhier's analysis. He commented: "... it's the truth. We have to recognize that we are not a Church presently forming disciples of Jesus. Yet that is our task."

Continuing his attempt to explain the decline of Catholicism of Quebec since the 1960s, Gagnon cites Cardinal Ratzinger's references to the shipwreck of womens' religious communities in the province. The only colony in North America founded and evangelized solely by Catholics, it went from a situation 40 years ago where the ratio of nuns to the total population was the highest in the world to the present situation. Due to departures, deaths and a failure of recruitment, the number of nuns has declined from 46,933 to 21,254, (1961-2001) a decline of 44%. New vocations declined during the same period by 98.5%, and a significant part of the remaining 1.5 % are "late" vocations. Ratzinger concluded that from a human point of view a reversal of such trends is impossible, and eventually religious life for women as it has been known will only be a memory in Quebec (and pehaps in all of Canada).

Will the end of religious life for women be the prelude of the death of Catholicism itself? Events like the closure of churches and the decline in the number of priests and of religious practice itself are harbingers. Msgr Couture, former Archbishop of Quebec City, has noted that his diocese will have to close down a third of its churches in the next 10 years (Ed: Montreal has been closing five churches a year for some time).

Gagnon cites a sociological study, Le Catholicisme Quebecois (Editions de l'QRC, 2000) by Lemieux and Montminy, worthy but incomplete attempt to diagnose a situation which was ignored by the predominantly Marxist-type of research done during the 1970s. Lemieux and Montminy are in agreement with Routhier about the obvious decline in religious practice in Quebec following the Second Vatican Council. Those who do practise their faith have been marginalized both in rural and urban areas.

Faith and Culture

Culture, Gagnon notes, is another aspect of the Catholic crisis in Quebec. The Christian faith, incarnational in essence, can only grow in the fertile soil which is culture. Priests will preach in vain if souls are corrupted from the cradle. He cites Jean-Marie Paupert as one of the most astute contemporary writers to understand the importance of culture in the transmission of faith: "If you abandon the power of culture, you will die. And with you will die the faith. In its daily reality which is both historic and enfleshed, faith is a culture."

For Gagnon the idea of a faith which is not expressed in practice is senseless. He points out that Sunday observance is a fundamental element of Christian identity because it makes visible the believer's respect and adoration of God by honouring the Lord's Day. Such a practice also allows the Christian community to gather together to hear the Word of God and celebrate the Eucharist. There is, he says, no Christianity without community of faith and without a priest to gather it together.

The sociologists he cites underline the importance of the demographic decline of the clergy to the point of extinction. How can priests be drawn from families which have suffered from divorce, and are sterilized by abortion and contraception? The Church lost its means of expression and effect on culture during the "Quiet Revolution." It has suffered a sort of spiritual AIDS crisis. which has paralysed it and prevented it from reacting both to the cancer within and assaults from without.

However Gagnon faults Montminy and Lemieux for seeing a "paradoxical creativity" in post-conciliar Quebec. He finds this optimism artificial, tending to underestimate the gravity of the crisis by pointing at paradoxical forms of vitality which are not really Christian even from a sociological point of view. They cite three grounds for optimism: the catechetical movement, the charismatic movement and the base communities. But even they admit that thirty years of catechesis have resulted in lamentable and even tragic results: "In fact nearly all observers agree that after eleven years of religious teaching during childhood and adolescence, and year after year, there is a triumph not only of the absence of catechization, but also a lack of religious culture."

And where is the vitality? Isn't the value of catechesis measured by the transmission of the Catholic faith? Beyond some pedagogical innovations which may interest some educational specialists, the transmission of the faith constitutes the results of good catechizing; anything else is bad or failed catechesis.

As for base communities, fortunately these vehicles for leftist subversion have never taken root in Quebec. Elsewhere, e.g., in Latin America, the illusion of a Christian revolutionary Marxism has totally failed, and liberation theology has been formally rejected by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As for the charismatics, this pentecostal American movement was only attractive during the effervescent 70s and its spirit has rapidly deflated.

Gagnon criticizes Lemieux and Montminy for understating the gravity of the crisis, as well as for dealing in generalities common to other sociologists. For example, Fernand Dumont, in 1995 at a conference at Laval, refused to reply to a question about the disappearance of religious habits, saying that this topic was too prosaic and elementary for his consideration. Perhaps this very elementary aspect is the reason why intellectuals have hardly dealt with one of the most basic questions, that of education in Quebec.

Fate of Catholic education

The Parent report on education did not try to cut the Gordian knot of religious affiliation of schools; it retained the official religious-based boards of education I and schools while limiting the authority of the bishops over the teaching of religion. Gagnon cites the Vatican II document Gravissimum educationis which stressed that the total school experience of a Catholic school ought to be A inspired by Christianity. But by 1967 it was already optional for teachers applying for jobs to identify themselves as Catholics. How can a school be Catholic if it lacks Catholic teachers? Today, Gagnon points out, there are non-believers teaching Catholicism in Quebec's Catholic schools. [Ed: Presumably up until 2001 at which time Catholic schools were abolished, together with the teaching of religion.]

Gagnon also pinpoints militants in the French language movement who in the early 1960s, unable to exclude religion completely from schools and refusing to establish their own schools and thus risk negative comparisons with superior Catholic schools, allowed Catholic schools to discredit themselves by diluting their identity to the point where these schools became insignificant, even in the eyes of Catholics. Thirty years later, with the connivance of the Parti Quebecois, the laicists proceeded to attack Catholic schools by means of the Proulx Report of 1999, which established non-confessional schools in the province even though Catholics constituted 80% of the population. But by this time, many, even the most fervent, wondered if the battle were worth the effort, since schools by then were Catholic in name only.

Rather than oppose doctrine with doctrine, atheism and agnosticism with Catholic teaching, the Quebec hierarchy merely expressed vague reservations about the new law. This was not surprising, because the Church in Quebec had abandoned its cultural and educational mission thirty years previously. This same abandonment, or rather treason, is apparent in the treatment of private Catholic institutions over which it has jurisdiction. The Petit Seminaire of Quebec, founded in 1663 by Blessed Francois de Laval for the formation of young Catholics who could enter the various religious orders in Quebec, is a case in point. The transformation of its exterior chapel into a concert hall is a sign of the times. Students were no longer required to attend Mass. The Quebec Ursulines, in a similar instance, have had to close the high school section of the oldest school for young women in North America. In Montreal, the College de Montreal, a Sulpician institution, and the College Jean-Brebeuf once run by the Jesuits, have closed down.

Schools abandoned

Gagnon accuses the Quebec church of abandoning all its prestigious schools, precisely those which could transmit to an elite Quebec youth the culture and mentality of Catholicism. Is it any surprise that there are no practitioners of the faith, and hence no vocations? The Quebec hierarchy, in sanctioning the abolition of the classical colleges, made a huge error of judgment, because these schools combined humanist culture and the Catholic religion and trained both the clerical and lay elites. Of course, they needed reforming, as do all institutions, but not along the lines of American high schools. Gagnon points out ironically that it was not Freemasons who sabotaged the school system but Catholics who did so, led by the Bishops, both groups lacking perspective and both thinking faith could be transmitted to children who are surrounded by a materialistic and consumerist society.

You cannot, notes Gagnon, make Christians out of children who live for forty hours a week in a milieu which is either hostile or indifferent to faith (not to mention the bad influence of television). The germ of faith sprouts badly in a dry land which is full of weeds and rocks. The problem of the Catholic school, like the general problem of Catholicism, is ultimately a question of identity: what is a Catholic school? By refusing to envision schools in the light of the guidance given by the Roman Magisterium, the Quebec bishops have destroyed the schools which should have been the beacons and models for all schools in Quebec. Does the Quebec Church still have the energy to rebuild these schools, once having destroyed them?

This is the challenge Jean-Paul Desbiens posed to the bishops in his 1998 journal A l'heure qu'il est (Montreal, Logiques). He proposes a two step operation. First, give a definition of what a Catholic school ought to be, being guided by the Magisterium, above all Gravissimum educationis. Second, create a Catholic school which conforms to the definition in each diocese of Quebec so that such Catholic schools become models for all Quebec schools. In this way a true reform of the Quebec school system would occur. Those who wait for the education faculties, bureaucrats and administrators of various levels of education to carry out this reform risk waiting too long. If the bishops remain deaf or indifferent to reform, then surely it is the mission of the lay people to carry it out, as can be seen happening in the U.S.A. John Paul II has said, "It is the hour of the laity." Isn't this above all true in the domain of education and culture? The statist mentality of Quebeckers is, however, an unfortunate and almost insurmountable barrier to the project.

A generation sacrificed

Gagnon admits his views sound pessimistic, but he wishes to be realistic. He belongs, he says, to a sacrificed generation, orphans of the sacred, and malnourished by a Church now heir to the Quiet Revolution which swept out things so thoroughly that there is little left of its heritage. But all is not lost. There remain faith, hope and charity. There are young people who could do anything they set their minds to. Let Catholics take their place again in a world which is theirs to give back to Christ. Perhaps a sclerotic sort of Catholicism has died in order that a purified and revivified faith should be born, and so that a way should open for a new generation of bishops and believers.

Perhaps the appointment of Msgr Ouellet to the See of Quebec will mark the end of our religious and national moroseness. A grain of faith remains in the heart of some Quebeckers, but it can only sprout in a fertile earth. Souls will not be evangelized if the culture is not evangelized also. The separation of faith and culture leads to the death of both, because culture is born of the cult which, in turn, spreads through culture. This symbiotic relationship is especially true in French Canada which was born from the blood of its martyrs and from the heroism of its founding saints.

Luc Gagnon is the president of campagne Quebec-Vie in Montreal.
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Author:Gagnon, Luc
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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