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Catholicism in Quebec and the Quiet Revolution Essay

Montreal is Quebec’s largest city, has always been renowned for its many churches and basilicas, earning it the nickname la ville aux cents clochers. Mark Twain once said “This is the first time I was ever in a city [Montreal] where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window”. Today, it is better known for the diversity of its people and its culture painted streets, such as the Quartier Latin and the booming Quartier des spectacles. The city is home to over a hundred and twenty cultural communities and seventy-five languages; seemingly fitting since well over a quarter of the population was born abroad. In the June 2008 issue of Monocle, a London based magazine, Montreal was dubbed “Canada’s Culture Capital”. It seems hard to imagine that the Catholic Church had a monopoly over not only Montreal but the entire province of Quebec simply half a century ago. How did a land founded and built on Catholicism become a place renowned for its cultural diversity?

This essay will explore how the Catholic faith’s image developed in Quebec after the Second World War, touching the province’s strong religious foundation, the Church’s control of the education and medical systems, and how the Quiet revolution paved the way for the prosperity of the French language and the multicultural land we have today. Jacques Cartier officially claimed Quebec in the name of the King of France in 1534, bringing the first sign of Christianity by putting up a cross in Gaspé that is still visible to this day. The farm, family, faith and language were until recently stereotypical symbols for the Quebecois, but gradually became symbols of French settlers instead. However, these hadn’t always been symbols of the colonists; farming and permanent families were not part of the mindset of the early colony.

Samuel de Champlain first met with the Algonquin people on his exploration journey in 1603 and the two parties were quick to form an alliance. The French and Algonquin began trading firearms for furs to keep warm throughout the winter but were mainly sent to be sold in France. During the long alliance with the Algonquin people many Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus, a Christian male religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, sought to evangelize and convert the aboriginal people. This created a bitter divide between the traditional practitioners of Midewiwin and the Catholic converts. Champlain returned in 1608 to create a settlement in what is now Quebec City, however at the time the French were interested in trading, fishing cod fish and later hunting beaver. This lifestyle made it difficult to attract potential colonists, and upon Champlain’s death in 1635 there were only 300 settlers in New France. King Louis XIV began encouraging members of his military to remain and settle in New France after discharge, and also hiring young laborers to work in the colony then encouraging them to stay as well.

The recruitment efforts of the King of France resulted in a 2:1 male to female ratio, thus he supported les filles du roi, a plan where poor women without a dowry migrated to New France to be married and bear children. By 1681, the marriages and families of these women grew the population to 10 000. These 10 000 French settlers would produce most of the francophone population of Canada (Phan, 292). Once King Louis XV signed the Treaty of Paris, handing over the French territories to the English, the French military, upper-class and business elite all returned to France. The abandoned settlers turned to the Roman Catholic Church as the clergy begun opening schools and hospitals. The French colony of Quebec wanted to avoid an American influenced political policy which stood for Protestantism, republicanism and war, as well as severing its ties with France following the Treaty of Paris and the French Revolution’s religious prosecutions.

The colony then adapted policies of the Church, associating the land with the Vatican instead. The Church system worked well for the prosperity of the people at the time, but later Pope’s decisions would eventually lead to the downfall of faith in Quebec. The early 19th to mid-20th centuries saw the farm, family, faith and language become the sacramental lifestyle of the Quebecois. At the end of the 19th century in Rome, Pope Leo XIII called for a renewal of ecclesial studies to modernise the Church’s lessons to aid in the application against the challenges of the new world. Reform-minded scholars were thus encouraged to explore and revise the conventional positions of the church and were given much elbowroom until the Pope’s death in 1903. His successor, Pope Pius X, had a much different approach.

In 1907 the Pope published Pascendi Dominici Gregis, a letter condemning modernism as the synthesis of all heresies (Jodock, 56). The Vatican began enforcing anti-modernism, which set the stage for what would later be the Quiet revolution. `The period leading up to the 1960s was one through which the province had long been undergoing a process of industrialization and urbanization that had dated back to the latter part of the nineteenth century. Various transformations had been taking place, making it no surprise that the Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) was able to dethrone the Union Nationale (UN) as leaders of provincial government. During the 1940s and 1950s, the image most frequently associated with Quebec’s French-Canadian people was that of a church-ridden, agricultural society outside the mainstream of the urban-industrial North American way of life.

Although the Catholic Church is credited for the preservation of the French language and culture, the Western world had moved its interest away from the large families and agriculture supported by the Church. This seemingly outdated view of Quebec as a society gave politicians a clear view on what to campaign for. Jean Lesage of the QLP was able to garner over 50% of the popular vote and gain 51 seats to defeat the UN, ending a 16 year run for that party in Quebec. The province was about to come out of the period known as “la grande noirceur”, due to the scandal and corruption that the Union Nationale leader used to remain in power, and to enter a new era that Quebec still finds itself in at this very moment. The Quebecois expected change and Lesage was to come through for them.

As the former provincial government had been supported by the Catholic Church, he had started what seemed to be a secularization process that coincided with the status of religion in Quebec at that time. Between the years 1961 and 1971, religious practice in Montreal fell from 61 percent of the population to 30 percent, and only 14 percent among people aged 16-24. The low number of young Catholics raised many concerns for the Church as to wear they would find future replacements for its aging clergy (Gauvreau). The emergence of lay Quebec organizations that defined nationalism in terms of language and political independence instead of religion also hastened a loss of confidence in the church. Not the least of significant markers in the 1960s was the bishops’ decision to dismantle Catholic Action itself. The entire process resulted in a de-Christianization that most defined carefully as not the decline of private belief, but as the rapid loss of a Catholic public identity.

Jean-Paul Desbiens wrote a letter under the name Brother Anonymous criticizing the education system, stating the importance of the involvement and control of the provincial government over such services. The characterization of Quebec citizens as a religious people was outdated and the following period gave birth to a new identity for the Quebecois to latch on to. The Premier began this procedure by having the province take control of education by first establishing the Department of Youth (which became the Ministry of Education in 1964) and provided free education up through high school.

Lesage would then go on to make schooling up until the age of 16 mandatory with the belief that educating the youth would lead them to become the successful leaders of tomorrow, replacing the Anglophones who were in control of most of Quebec’s businesses at the time. Continuing the reform, he increased government control over the healthcare system, by implementing a hospital insurance plan in 1961 (a prequel to Quebec’s version of a universal healthcare plan in 1972).

These two essential institutions, which had been the responsibility of the Catholic Church ever since the birth of New France, were now primarily in the hands of the provincial government, giving substantiation for the many that now believed Quebec was a secular society. In Conclusion, a land founded and built on Catholicism became a place renowned for its cultural diversity after the anti-modernisation of the Church forced the Quebecois to break free from its monopoly over the province. After exploring how the Catholic faith’s image developed in Quebec, it is made evident that the stereotypical symbols of the 19th century Quebecois had to be shaken in the 20th century in order for them to prosper in the 21st century.

Works Cited:
Tentler, Leslie W. and Kevin Christiano. The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholicism since 1950 in the United States, Ireland, and Quebec. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2007. Print. 19-90

Jodock, Darrell. Catholicism Contending with Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-modernism in Historical Context. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.

Van, Die Marguerite. Religion and Public Life in Canada: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2001. Print.

Phan, Peter C. Ethnicity, Nationality and Religious Experience. Lanham, MD: University of America, 1995. Print.

Gauvreau, Michael. The churches and social order in nineteeth- and twentieth-century Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006. Print.

Baum, Gregory and Michael Gauvreau. The Catholic Origins of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, 1931-1970. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. Print.


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