What Happens In Quebec Does Not Stay In Quebec
In February the Saint-Sacrement Hospital in Quebec City – founded by Catholics, but now secular – removed a large crucifix from its lobby after receiving a complaint.
Normally this would not be newsworthy, but the hospital received 600 phone calls and a petition with thousands of signatures, all demanding the crucifix be returned to its place. A week later it was back.
This incident highlights some of the paradoxes of religion in Quebec. In terms of attendance, Quebec is the least religious part of the country. According to 2011 data only 17 per cent attend church in any given month, compared to 27 per cent of the country as a whole.
At the same time, the people of Quebec are more likely to identify with a religion than are other Canadians. While 24 per cent of all Canadians claim they have no religion, in Quebec that number is only 12 per cent. In fact the large majority of Quebeckers – 75 per cent – consider themselves Catholics.
Strange as it may sound, Quebec is a society both overwhelmingly Catholic and highly irreligious. How did it get to be this way?
For most of Quebec’s history, Catholicism was central to French Canadian identity. From the founding of New France with the help of Catholic missionaries in the 1600s to the 1950s, Catholicism was closely entwined with the identity of French Canada. Catholicism set Quebec apart from its predominantly Protestant neighbours in Canada and the U.S.
That Catholic identity was accompanied by strong devotion. Many people felt called to join the priesthood or a religious order. In the postwar 1950s, weekly church attendance of Quebec Catholics was as high as 88 per cent — one of the highest rates of church attendance ever recorded in a modern society.
The Catholic Church also played a central social role by running most of the province’s schools and hospitals, like Saint-Sacrement – whose name refers to Christian sacraments such as baptism and the Eucharist.
All of this changed in the 1960s during a period known as the Quiet Revolution. A political shift led the provincial government to take over health care and education from the Church. A new, secular form of Quebec identity emerged. From then on Quebec sought to assert its distinctiveness through its use of the French language and its attempt to control its own natural resources and major businesses.
Alongside these changes a profound religious transformation took place. Church attendance dropped rapidly, falling to only 48 per cent monthly attendance in 1986, and 17 per cent monthly attendance in 2011.
To a large degree, as Quebeckers stopped attending church, they also stopped following Catholic teachings, especially in the area of family and sexuality. Birthrates plummeted while abortion rates soared.
Historians disagree about why this all happened. One reason was the rise of intellectuals and political figures, including a young Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who opposed the involvement of the Catholic Church in politics and worked to create a more secular public square.
Changes within the Catholic Church itself also played a role. A new generation of lay and clerical leaders called for a more modern Catholicism that would play a less dominant role in Quebec. They saw the positive stance toward modern trends displayed at Vatican II, a major international Catholic council held between 1962 and 1965, as supporting their position.
These Catholic leaders welcomed the changes of the Quiet Revolution. They were optimistic that with a new attitude Christianity would fare well in Quebec after the Quiet Revolution. In hindsight their hopes were disappointed.
The secularization of Quebec has contributed to the secularization of Canada as a whole. It has helped create a sense that religion does not really belong in the public sphere, and has pulled the country in a more liberal direction on some social issues of concern to Evangelicals such as abortion and euthanasia.
As in other formerly Catholic societies like Spain, it can be difficult for evangelicalism to gain a hearing. Many Quebeckers have no practical use for religion, but still think of Catholicism as normal and other religions as exotic imports. They may be secular, but it’s a Catholic kind of secularity.
Whether or not there is a crucifix on the wall in the hospitals, Quebec’s Evangelicals continue to share the gospel of the crucified one with their secular neighbours. They deserve our prayers and support.
PERCENTAGE OF QUEBEC CATHOLICS WHO ATTENDED WORSHIP WEEKLY IN 1957
REGINALD BIBBY, UNKNOWN GODS, 1993
PERCENTAGE OF QUEBECKERS WHO ATTEND CHURCH IN ANY GIVEN MONTH
PEW FORUM, 2011