It was the most Catholic region of North America, but today is the most secularized. It's where Cardinal Ouellet is from, a relator general at the synod of bishops on the Word of God. And Benedict XVI is also looking to it, as to a new missionary territory
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, October 8, 2008 – In his homily at the opening Mass for the synod of bishops dedicated to the Sacred Scriptures, Benedict XVI recalled that from the first proclamation of the Gospel, "Christian communities arose that at first were flourishing, but later disappeared and are now remembered only in the history books."
And he added:
"Could not the same thing happen in our time? Nations that once were rich in faith and vocations are now losing their identity, under the harmful and destructive influence of a certain modern culture."
It can be guessed that, among these nations that once were exuberantly Christian but are no longer so, Pope Joseph Ratzinger is thinking of Canada, and more precisely of Québec.
Benedict XVI entrusted to the archbishop of Québec, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the task of introducing and closing the work of the synod with two general addresses. And Cardinal Ouellet is one of the best-informed and most critical witnesses of the metamorphosis that over a few decades has turned the highly Catholic Québec back into missionary territory.
Québec, the capital of which is Montréal, is Canada's largest province by area, five times bigger than Italy, but with fewer than 8 million inhabitants. They speak French, and until the middle of the last century they preserved a strong Catholic character. The rivers and villages there bear the names of saints, there are many churches, and almost all of the schools and hospitals were the result of religious initiatives. Vocations also flourished.
But beginning in the 1960's, all of this collapsed. Without fanfare, a "quiet revolution" put Québec in the vanguard of secularization. Today less than 5 percent of Catholics go to Mass on Sundays. There are few religious marriages, most funerals are civil, and baptisms are increasingly rare.
And the laws ratify this state of affairs in the name of a secularist fundamentalism that has gone so far, this year, as to impose on all state and private schools in Québec – the first instance of its kind in the world – an obligatory course on "ethics and religious culture," with teachers who are forbidden to present themselves as believers and members of the community of faith. The course gives information on the major world religions and discusses controversial topics, like abortion and euthanasia, with the obligation of taking no position one way or another.
"It is the dictatorship of relativism applied beginning in elementary school," Cardinal Ouellet charges. But his is an isolated voice. 80 percent of families continue to ask for the teaching of the Catholic religion, but only one, Loyola High School in Montréal, has appealed to the supreme court against the obligatory course now imposed by law.
Georges Leroux, the philosopher at the University of Montréal who designed the new course, maintains that "the time has come to think about the transmission of religious culture no longer as faith, but as history, as the universal heritage of humanity."
It should be noted that the laws that stray the farthest from Church teaching were ratified in Québec not by radical majorities, but by moderate ones. The law on the obligatory teaching of "ethics and religious culture" was approved by a conservative government, which includes Catholic members.
Moreover, the cultural revolution that has changed the face of Québec, as "quiet" as it may have been, has recently become more hostile and disdainful toward those who resist it. In an interview with "Avvenire"on October 3, Cardinal Ouellet said:
"I saw evidence of this aversion when I recently wrote an open letter to the media, in which among other things I asked for forgiveness in the name of the Canadian Church for our past mistakes. The letter met with a reaction of open hostility."
Cardinal Ouellet has described and analyzed the emblematic case of Québec in an article in the most recent issue of "Vita e Pensiero," the magazine of the Catholic University of Milan: the article is all the more interesting in that it was published on the eve of a synod of bishops dedicated to "how to make the proclamation of the Gospel increasingly effective in our time."
Here it is:
Where is Québec going? On faith and secularism
by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec
From the outset, I state my conviction that the crisis of values and the search for meaning are so profound and urgent in Québec as to have serious repercussions on public health as well, and this is generating enormous costs for the health system. For four hundred years, Québec society has rested on two pillars, French culture and the Catholic religion, which form the basic armor that has allowed the integration of other components of its current pluralist identity. Nonetheless, this armor has been made fragile by the weakening of the religious identity of the Francophone majority.
The current debate touches directly on religion and relations among the cultural communities, but the real problem does not concern the integration of immigrants, made more difficult by their requests of a religious nature. Statistics reveal that the requests for accommodation for religious reasons are minimal, which means that the reason for the current tensions are to be sought elsewhere. The responsibility for the profound crisis of Québec society should therefore not be attributed to those who have arrived there searching for refuge, or to their religion, viewed as invasive. Refugees and immigrants often bring us the richness of their testimony and of their cultural values, which are added to the values proper to Québec society. Openness and solidarity should therefore remain basic attitudes toward immigrants and their human and religious needs.
The real problem – taking up the rather vague expression that encourages the spread of the fashionable slogan "religion in private or in church, but not in public" – is no longer that of "the place that religion occupies in public places." And what are public places? The street, the park, the media, the school, city hall, the national parliament? Should the monuments dedicated to Monsignor François de Laval and to Cardinal Taschereau be removed from public view? Should the greeting "Merry Christmas" be prohibited by lawmakers, and replaced with "Season's Greetings," to be more correct? Have the religious symbols that are characteristic of our history, and therefore part of the makeup of our collective identity, become annoyances and bad memories to be hidden away? Must they be eliminated from public places in order to satisfy a radical secularist minority that is the only one to complain, in the name of the absolute equality of citizens?
Believers and nonbelievers take their belief or nonbelief with them everywhere they go. They are called to live together, to accept and respect each other, not to impose their belief or nonbelief, in private or in public. Is not, perhaps, the removal from public places of every religious sign identified culturally according to a well-defined tradition, with its religious dimension, the same thing as promoting the absence of belief as the only value worthy of being asserted? The presence of the crucifix in the national parliament, in city hall, at intersections, is not the symbol of any sort of state religion. It is an identifying and cultural sign connected to the concrete history of a population that has the right to the continuity of its institutions and symbols. This symbol is not in the first place a confessional sign, but the testimony of the cultural heritage of an entire society marked by its historical vocation as the cradle of the evangelization of North America. The government of the Canadian province of Québec just recently rejected a proposal to remove the crucifix from parliament.
Québec's real problem is not, therefore, the presence of religious signs or the appearance of new religious signs that intrude in public places. Québec's real problem is the spiritual vacuum created by a religious and cultural rupture, by the substantial loss of memory, which leads to a crisis in the family and in education, leaving citizens disoriented, dispirited, vulnerable to instability and attracted to fleeting and superficial values. This spiritual and symbolic vacuum undermines the culture of Québec from within, dispersing its vital energy and generating insecurity and a lack of grounding and continuity with the evangelical and sacramental values that have nourished it since its origin.
A people whose identity was substantially shaped over centuries by the Catholic faith cannot from one day to the next purge itself of its essence, without grave repercussions on all levels. It is this that has led to the disorientation of young people, the precipitous drop in marriages, the low birthrate, and the frightening number of abortions and suicides, to mention just a few of the consequences, in addition to the precarious situation of the elderly and of public health. To finish, this spiritual and cultural vacuum is maintained by an anti-Catholic rhetoric full of clichés, which unfortunately is found too often in the media.
This fosters a true culture of shame and disdain in regard to our religious heritage, and destroys the soul of Québec. The time has come to ask ourselves: "Québec,what have you done with your baptism?" The time has come to stop the secularist fundamentalism imposed by means of public funding, and restore a better balance between tradition and creative innovation, at the service of the common good. We must relearn respect for the religion that forged the identity of the population, and respect for all religions, without giving in to the pressure of the secular fundamentalists who are demanding the exclusion of religion from the public sphere.
Québec is ripe for a profound new evangelization, which is already appearing in certain areas through important catechetical initiatives, and also through common efforts to return to the sources of our history. Spiritual and cultural renewal is possible if the dialogue among state, society, and the church resumes its course, constructive and respectful of our now pluralist collective identity.
In the context of a discussion about "reasonable compromises," one cannot ignore the radical change that the state of Québec has just introduced concerning the place of religion in the schools.
This change is provoking distress and anger among many parents who see themselves as private citizens, in the name of a final reform and of the modernization of Québec's education system, of a right they have acquired. Without considering the primacy of the right of parents and their clearly expressed desire to retain the freedom of choice between confessional and moral teaching, the state is suppressing confessional teaching and imposing an obligatory course of ethics and religious culture in both public and private schools.
No European nation has ever adopted such a radical approach, which revolutionizes the convictions and religious freedom of the citizens. This leads to the profound dissatisfaction and sense of powerlessness that many families feel toward an omnipotent state that seems not to fear the influence of the Church, and that can therefore impose its law without any higher influence. The most scandalous fate is reserved for the private Catholic schools, which find themselves forced on account of government subsidies to marginalize their own confessional teaching in favor of the course imposed by the state everywhere and at all levels.
Will the operation of refocusing the ethical and religious formation of citizens by means of this obligatory course be able to salvage minimal points of reference to ensure a harmonious common life? I doubt it, and I am convinced of the contrary, because this operation is conducted at the expense of the religious freedom of the citizen, especially the freedom of the Catholic majority. Moreover, it is based exclusively on a "knowledge" of the beliefs and rituals of six or seven religions. I doubt that teachers who have truly received little preparation to meet this challenge can teach with complete neutrality and in a critical way ideas that for them are even less comprehensible than those of their own religion. It takes a lot of naivety to believe that this miracle of the cultural teaching of religion will manufacture a new little inhabitant of Québec, a pluralist, an expert in interreligious relations and a critic of all faiths. The least that can be said is that the thirst for virtual values will be far from quenched, and that a dictatorship of relativism risks making the transmission of our religious heritage even more difficult.
The rural culture of Québec displays a cross at almost every intersection. This "cross in the road" invites prayer and reflection on the meaning of life. What choice is being imposed on our society now, so that the state may make enlightened decisions that are truly respectful of the religious conscience of individuals, groups, and Churches? Despite certain anomalies due to the recurring but limited impulses of fanaticism, religion remains a source of inspiration and a force for peace in the world and in our society, on the condition that it not be manipulated by political interests or persecuted in its legitimate aspirations.
The reform imposed by the law subjects the religions to state control and interests, putting an end to the religious freedoms acquired for generations. This law does not serve the common good, and cannot be imposed without being perceived as a violation of religious freedom by the citizens. It would not be reasonable to retain it as it has been issued, because it would create a narrow secularist legalism that excludes religion from the public sphere. The two pillars of our national cultural identity, language and religion, are historically and sociologically called to support each other or collapse together. Has the moment not come for a new alliance between the Catholic faith and the emerging culture to bring back more security and faith in the future to Québec society?
Québec has always lived in by the heritage of a strong and positive religious tradition, with an absence of great conflicts and the characteristics of sharing, openness to the foreigner, and compassion for those most in need. This religious heritage founded on love must be protected and cultivated, because it is a force for social integration that is much more effective than the abstract understanding of a few superficial ideas of six or seven religions. Above all, it is important at this moment for the Catholic majority to reawaken, to recognize its real spiritual needs and attach itself again to traditional practices, in order to be capable of the mission that has belonged to it since its origin.