Sunday, April 7, 2013

Catholicism in Quebec: Then and Now

Canada doesn’t stand much chance of ever winning a soccer title. But who needs soccer when your nation produced the Pope? Well, we came close (according to Maclean’s), but sadly cardinal Marc Oullet was bested by Jorge Bergoglio in last month’s papal election. The event got me thinking about Roman Catholicism in Quebec and how it developed to its state today.

The Canadian who could be the next Pope
Cardinal Marc Oullet with the former Pope Benedict XVI
From the founding of New France until the middle of the 20th century, the church was a defining feature of social life in Quebec. Religious leaders saw the new world as virgin territory, a haven of piety against the growing secularism in France. Did you know that Montreal was originally intended to be an outpost of religious devotion? 150 years later, while the Revolution raged in France, Catholic historians saw the hand of Providence in shielding religion in the St. Lawrence colony from secularism in the mother country. Even until 1960, Quebec had more clergy than both Ireland and France.

Today, the 80% of the people still identify with the Catholic Church, but only 20% attend church services. By Maclean’s assessment, they have become “allergic to the worship of their own deity.” So what happened? Essentially this: Quebec went though the same breadth of social change that took France 200 years. Let’s look at the forerunners of that change.

On August 1948, when Marc Oullet was just four years old, a group of painters in Montreal published the Refus Global. In the same tradition as The Communist Manifesto, they challenged the materialism and repression they saw in society. They accused the clergy of enslaving people in a regime of fear: “They have extorted with us a thousand times more than they ever gave.” Against this, they sound a call to freedom for the masses – “submissive slaves” – and their emotional development, material progress, and collective hope.

A sample work by one of the Montreal painters, Jean-Paul Riopelle. La Forêt Ardente
To be sure, power is often a corrupting force, and there’s no doubt that the artists had legitimate grounds for protest. At the same time, it would be unjust to forget that the church was the sole provider of social services to the sick, poor, and marginalized - not to mention the only caretaker of education for hundreds of years. I think it’s a shame that we're so quick to forget years of faithful service.

Well, what was the reaction to the Refus Global? It was condemned – universally. Hundreds of newspapers and magazines published articles overnight censuring the manifesto. Paul-Emile Bourdas, the lead writer, was fired from his position as an art teacher. The public wasn’t ready to question the church – not, at least, until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.

You may remember the scene from The Devil Wears Prada: Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is consulting with her fashion minions when Andy (Anne Hathaway) snickers at their discussion over two apparently identical belts. Miranda turns and fixes her with an icy stare. In the dressing down that follows, she rebukes Andy for her false pride and points out that her ‘decision’ to buy the sweater she is wearing was, in fact, a choice made for her by the fashion industry. What was once avant garde trickled down into society where it shaped the fashion choices of Andy and millions of other unsuspecting people.

In much the same way, the Refus Global stands as the forerunner of secularism in Quebec. Though rejected at first, its ideas would later motivate the wholesale departure from the church – whether people were aware of it or not.

Maclean’s article, “Cardinal Marc Oullet: The Canadian who Could be Pope,” gives interesting commentary on Oullet and the state of Catholicism in Quebec:

You can read the full text of The “Refus Global” here:

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