Sunday, July 06, 2014

1966: the year the Church in Quebec disappeared

Well, maybe not quite disappeared; but something close. The "Quiet Revolution" (Revolution tranquille) in Quebec in the 1960s -- a movement characterized by the effective secularization of society, the creation of a welfare state, and the provincial government taking over the fields of health care and education previously administered by the Church -- turned the most Catholic province on earth into the most secular almost overnight. What happened?

A reader kindly sent us the link to the fine, in-depth analysis below by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who was intimately acquainted with many of the details of this transformation. The analysis is found about half-way through a series of reflections found in "Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism" (First Things, March 2008) -- the relevant portion extracted here for your convenience below. Of particular interest are some of the more general warnings Neuhaus draws from the case of Quebec against overly ebullient expectations from such things as John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" in our own times. Interesting.
• No two times and no two places are entirely alike, and no time and place was very much like Quebec in the 1960s. As Father Raymond Leclerc says in the 2003 film Les Invasions Barbares: “You know, way back, everybody here was Catholic, just as in Spain or ­Ireland. And then, at a very specific moment—it was during the year 1966—in only a few months, the churches suddenly emptied out. A very strange ­phenomenon, one that nobody has ever been able to explain.” You cannot get very far into academic discussions about “secularization” and somebody will bring up the strange case of Quebec. The fictional Father Leclerc may be right that nobody has been able to explain what happened in Quebec, but it is not for want of trying. Here are two fresh and very helpful attempts by Michael Gauvreau, a historian at McMaster University in Ontario, and Kevin J. Christiano, a sociologist at Notre Dame. Their essays appear in a new book from Catholic University Press, The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholicism since 1950 in the United States, Ireland, and Quebec. Both writers agree that it began long before 1966. As Gauvreau and many others depict it, the “Quiet Revolution” (Revolution tranquille) began as a reaction against the almost total synthesis of Church, culture, and state under the auspices of the Union Nationale party led by Maurice Duplessis, who ruled, with one brief interruption, from 1935 to 1959. The Quiet Revolution, writes Christiano, was “the veritable coming of age of a ­people in its belated encounter with modernity.” The Quiet Revolution is usually dated from 1960, but it began decades earlier, with unexpected consequences of mostly good intentions gone wildly awry. Charles Doran, an American scholar, is quoted: “The clergy that had saved Quebec from the neglect of Louis XV and his court, and from the hardships of survival in a rough land, now became a burden. A Catholic faith that had provided the social cement for the colony, as well as solace from fear and from societal and job exclusion for its members, became an embarrassing reminder of a past that everyone wanted to forget.” The fate of the Church in Quebec is an illustration in spades that no good deed goes unpunished. Not that the Church didn’t make mistakes, beginning with its uncritical alliance with Duplessis. Until the Liberals took power in 1960, almost all the educational and social services of Quebec were run by the Church. Within, it seems, the blink of an eye, the Church retreated and the state took over. For the most part, the Church willingly, even eagerly, retreated. It is not too much to say that the Church led the retreat, and did so in the name of a more “authentic” ­Catholicism.

• The state of Catholicism in Quebec today is grim. Sociologists describe it as a free fall. To be sure, 80 percent of Quebecers say they are Catholics, and many still expect certain services from the Church, but their relationship to the Church is much like their relationship to the company that provides gas and electricity. As one observer describes it: “Citizens approach it to provide specialized services of a religious nature: baptism, first communion, confirmation, marriage, funerals, etc. It becomes, in a manner of speaking, a place for the production and distribution of symbolic goods of a certain kind. The relationship that it establishes with a majority of parishioners succeeds in resembling very much that which a utility fosters with its users.” In 1966, there were 8,800 diocesan priests; today there are 2,600, most of them older and many in nursing homes. In 1945, weekly Mass attendance stood at 90 percent; today it is well under 20 percent, and much lower in the large urban areas. Hundreds of religious communities have simply disappeared. The birth rate has fallen from an average of four children per couple to 1.5, well under what demographers call the replacement rate. And most of them are not born to couples. At present, 55.3 percent of births are to single mothers who have never been married. A magazine in western Canada ran an article under the impolite title “A Province of ­Bastards.” And, of course, the number of abortions has soared. As for the public role of the clergy, they are treated, says Christiano, with “polite indifference.” The new “bishops” providing moral guidance to the public, one observer notes, are the sociologists and other academics at the universities of Montreal and Laval. Thousands of parish churches, many of them bereft of people, are physically maintained by the provincial government under its “heritage” program. As a tour guide in the provincial parliament building explains to a tourist puzzled by the prominence of a crucifix, C’est l’histoire, madame—“Madam, that is history.” The official motto of Quebec, emblazoned on its license plates, is Je me souviens—“I remember.” Among the things they remember, along with the ­endless battles with English Canadians and the struggle to assert themselves as a “nation within a nation,” they remember when Quebec was Catholic. A few remember it fondly; most remember it in order, by remembering, to make sure it will not return.

• Michael Gauvreau’s essay is, I think, a particularly insightful analysis of what happened in Quebec. It is not so simple a matter, as old-fashioned secularization theorists would have it, of “confronting modernity.” Nor was it just a matter of escaping from an oppressive and stifling cultural-political hegemony. Nor was it a case of the putative “renewal” mandated by the Second Vatican Council running amok. The council concluded in 1965, by which time the Quiet Revolution was triumphant. The revolution got underway long before that. Its young leaders in Catholic Action were “the brightest and the best” and were inspired by Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical on social doctrine, Quadragesimo Anno. They construed that teaching in a way that created a category of “youth” that was depicted as modernity pitted against the way of their elders. The Catholic Action renewal proceeded, as Gauvreau writes, “from a negative reference point: the values of previous generations could offer no guidance or salvation for young Catholics confronted with the pressures and challenges of modern society.” Many bishops and priests ardently supported this youthful demand for an “authentic” Catholicism. The leaders of Catholic Action believed themselves to be fervently Catholic in seeking a more genuine form of lay Catholicism. The male leaders who dominated Catholic Action were disdainful of “feminized” popular piety and devotions centered on the family and extended families of parish communities. They were inspired also by the 1930 encyclical, Casti Connubii, which places a new emphasis on the spiritual and sexual dimensions of marriage. An enormously popular marriage-preparation program was launched that promoted a “sanctification of sex,” strongly favoring the nuclear family and mutual satisfaction over ­traditional familial patterns. Marriage was elevated over celibacy, and it was urged that the clergy had little to say about how the faith should be lived in the real world. The new approach was described as “personalist,” in contrast to the cultural and routine Catholicism of the past. Marriage was centered in a mutual “gift of self.” (Readers may, with reason, be reminded of the language of John Paul II’s “theology of the body.”) Having children was subordinated to the greater value of the mutual satisfaction of the couple, from which the extended family was excluded. The marriage-preparation movement promulgated the idea that both ­husband and wife needed to achieve, and maybe were entitled to, complete orgasm. Long before the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, the great majority of priests said there was no problem with the pill and other contraceptives. By 1968, the Church’s teaching on this question, and almost everything else, was a dead letter. Key to the Quiet Revolution was contempt for the past. As one of the most prominent leaders of Catholic Action, Fernand Dumont, declared, the old Catholicism in Quebec was “a dog’s breakfast of pseudo-beliefs that are in reality superstitions barely disguised by a thin coat of Christian veneer.” Such leaders styled themselves as a “Christian left” in close imitation of their French hero, Emmanuel Mounier. With the support of the more influential clergy, it was proposed that there are two Catholicisms: “one authentic, heroic, spiritually pure, communitarian, appealing to masculine reason, and the other routine, sentimental, unthinking, overly pious, excessively individualistic, appealing primarily to women and the less educated.” As Gauvreau notes, there was also a strong dose of anti-Americanism in the ideology of the leaders of the Quiet Revolution. Quebecers are, after all, French in more than language. And the most “progressive” among them tend toward a fierce nationalism. Many today lament the break of the link between Catholicism and the operative values of the people of Quebec. To which Gauvreau responds with a question: “After two decades of increasingly shrill hectoring and denigration by a self-appointed spiritual elite, why would the masses even be remotely interested in a project of defining a synthesis between Catholicism and nationalism in which their religious experience was no longer included?”

• Quebec is in some ways sui generis, but that does not mean there are not lessons applicable to other times and places. As longtime readers know, I spend part of the summer at the family cottage in Quebec and have over the years read a great deal of literature, and talked with numerous clergy and laypeople, about the Quiet Revolution, its sources and consequences. The essays in The Church Confronts Modernity, and especially that by Michael Gauvreau, throw valuable light on the subject. It is not unproblematic to speak of the debilitating influence of “elites.” After all, elite is closely related to the aspiration toward excellence. And it is a good thing that young people are seized by a vision of renewal, for surely the Church should be and can be different—proposing a high sense of spiritual, moral, and intellectual adventure in response to the call to holiness. All that is true, and importantly true. The fateful turn in Quebec was to pit youth against parents, elders, and ecclesial leadership, ending up with “two Catholicisms.” Mutatis mutandis, the same thing happened here with a “post-Vatican II Church” pitted against a “pre-Vatican II Church,” and it goes a long way toward explaining why liberal Catholicism is now, also in this country, an exhausted project. Those who marched under the banner of “renewal” and “reform” too often exhibited a contempt for the fervent piety and frequently heroic labors of prior generations. There was a desperate eagerness to distance themselves from the “immigrant” and “ghetto” Catholicism of the past. A now elderly priest who has never grown beyond being a very progressive priest of the 1960s once told me, “The reform of Vatican II will not be implemented until the last bead-banging bingo-playing blue-haired old biddy suffers a fatal heart attack at the last novena.” That’s gross, of course, but not unrepresentative of a certain liberal vision of renewal that ­exercised great influence for four decades.

• Contempt for the tradition that one would renew is lethal. Clergy and lay leaders do well to keep in mind an observation of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Whom you would change, you must first love, and they must know you love them.” It is an encouragement that the many youthful renewal movements in the Church today, although sometimes marked by elitism in the pejorative sense of that term, are typically devoted to the Church’s tradition in faith and morals, and respectful of popular devotions. More or less self-consciously rebelling, as youth will rebel, against two generations that equated progress with the jettisoning of the past, they want the Church to be more not less Catholic. Of even greater importance, they refuse to conform to the notion that rebellion is the normal mode of being young. One might say that they are rebelling against the imposed disposition of rebellion. (This phenomenon is insightfully addressed by Joseph Bottum in “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” October 2006) These young people know that there is much they do not know, and they are not embarrassed to acknowledge that their disposition is that of learning. Perhaps some of them have even read the words of Goethe:

What you have as heritage
Take now as task;
For thus you will make it your own.

I do not want to exaggerate, but such is my impression from the young Catholics I encounter on campuses around the country, in our international summer seminar in Poland, and, not least, on our staff here at First Things. You may object that they are not representative, that they are the elite. Yes, I suppose so. Which means they are the leaders who are redefining the meaning of renewal and reform. Which means they are very much unlike the elitists of Catholic Action in Quebec and their counterparts here in decades past who, in their no doubt well-intended efforts, precipitated such spiritual and institutional devastation.

• And, with your permission, one more thing. I mentioned in passing John Paul II’s “theology of the body” (now available in an improved translation as Man and Woman He Created Them). That is among the many gifts of the late pope that are today warmly embraced by many young Catholics. But, as mentioned earlier, some of the themes of the theology of the body are not new to the Catholic tradition; for example, a “personalist” understanding of the marital union and sexual relations as a “mutual gift of the self.” The use of these themes by the leaders of Catholic Action in Quebec led to a “sanctification of sex” and unrealistic expectations, resulting in dissatisfaction with the lived experience of marriage, in fewer children, and in more divorce. This is a real danger also among evangelical Protestants today who have produced a stream of books on how “everything goes better with Jesus”—including, maybe especially, sex. There is ample research suggesting that deeply committed Christians do have more and better sex in their marriages. But, while all of life, including sexual relations, should be holy, the “sanctification of sex” can distract attention from the virtues of patience and forbearance, and the inevitability of disappointments in marriage. It is wonderful when one’s duty is delight, but frequently duty is just duty. Marriage is sustained by love, and at times it is the case that love is sustained by marriage. Of course such wisdom is contained in the “theology of the body,” but this caution to some of its more enthusiastic proponents may be in order. And with that I conclude this reflection on what happened in Quebec, which, please God, will not happen here. Did I mention that some Catholics in Quebec, including some priests and bishops, have learned these lessons, and that there are, here and there, flickering signs of recovery? Maybe I’ll come back to that another time.
[Hat tip to Sir A.S.]


James Joseph


How interesting that the word 'embullient' reached it's peak usage beginning in the 1960's.

Type words in this little ditty of a tool to check their print frequency.

Scott Woltze


In 2008 I went to an academic conference in Montreal and used my free time to check out the Catholic sites. It was a religious wasteland--beautiful empty buildings. The few pious souls appeared to be immigrants.

I wish Fr. Neuhaus's excellent article had also mentioned that there was causation of a spiritual nature. Namely, sometimes God withdraws his hand and allows demons to have an unusually strong influence on human minds. How else does one explain eruptions like Rwanda, the French Revolution and everyone deciding all at once to beg off church. Obviously we'll see the penultimate form of this influence when the anti-christ comes.



I'm a reader of this blog and I live in Quebec. I thank you very much for this article, because I didn't even know what happened in my province ... It's so totally confusing. But, I must say I'm more pessimistic than the author of the article about our futur. It seems we are still in a free fall. I'm sorry to say, but it seems only suffering (eg. economic and state collapse) will bring back people to the faith ... The religion of our people now seems to be Secular Humanism.

Mathieu F.

Ralph Roister-Doister


Clericalism and laicism seem to be uninformative categories these days. That is because there is no priest and no lay person unaffected by the corruptions of modernism. Laicism is the most glaring of errors today, seen principally in the effort to tie holiness and "saintliness" to the insipidities of lay ministry. You too can be a plastic priest!

But you can't separate such efforts from the suicidal eagerness of clerics to lose themselves among the lay folk, as if the marks and behaviors of their ordination were an embarrassment to them. You too can be a vibrant lay enthusiast!



Very helpful. Reminds me of this Frank Sheed excerpt, one that seems almost rude and decidedly un-Westian in today's Cosmo-firendly culture of sexual fulfillment:

Sex does not live on illusion but illusion, is what it tends to breed. As Shaw says: “There is less difference between one young woman
and another young woman than the average young man thinks.” This has always been so, but among today’s believing Christians there is one illusion sex has not often bred before. I must have read hundreds of articles and letters written by Catholics in protest against [Humanae Vitae]. What interested me most was what the writers thought not about the encyclical but about sex itself. For the most part they struck me as of a purity so refined I felt coarse and earthy by comparison. The sex act they saw as love’s highest expression. The ruling purpose in their own intercourse seemed to be the enrichment of their partner’s personality. One wondered how refinedly they bore the discovery that she did not want her personality enriched that night. I mentioned this particular point to a couple thousand women at a luncheon in Los Angeles. They laughed and laughed. I got the impression that each of them was seeing one special face, not looking its best.