Quebec Turns Forward: The Quiet Revolution
WITHIN six months of Duplessis’ death in 1959 his government went down in defeat. It was said by Ramsay Cook in his book Canada and the French Canadian Question: “The death of Duplessis removed a cap that had kept the seething discontents of French Canada sealed up for more than a decade. It is doubtful if even Duplessis could have kept the cap on much longer, for the social and economic forces at work were much too potent.”
Writing of these conditions, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (himself a Catholic) described the necessity of “freeing consciences bullied by a clericalized and obscurantist church . . . freeing men crushed by authoritarian and outdated tradition.” He pointed out that there had never been much freedom in Quebec and added: “Around 1960 it seemed that freedom was going to triumph in the end. . . . so much so that the generation entering its 20’s in 1960 was the first in our history to receive fairly complete freedom as its lot. The dogmatism of Church and State, of tradition, of the nation, had been defeated.”
A Turning Point
The “change from the old way” brought new developments on many sides. The year 1960 marked a turning point, a leap forward with such suddenness that it is commonly spoken of as the “Quiet Revolution.”
A new era of information and intellectual liberty opened up. The press and media began to deal with the reality of life and its problems instead of having everything slanted to the protection of Catholicism and the status quo. The Canada 70 sociologists commented: “The establishment of a Department of Education in 1964 spelled the end of the Church’s control of education, and the advent of the Quiet Revolution in 1960 terminated the incredible political powers of the clergy.”
Quebec of the 1960’s really began to shed the old image of clergy domination and isolationism. It started to reach out for the North American life-style as it is found in the rest of Canada and the United States.
A number of factors of 20th-century life have contributed toward the Quiet Revolution, Quebec’s “society in motion.” One of these was the Vatican council initiated by Pope John XXIII. The changes in the Church that followed this council had an unsettling influence on many of the Catholic people.
Instead of total Catholic domination the Montreal Star has pointed out that it is now “the common view among Quebec intellectuals that the Church is what has always been wrong with Quebec.”
The victories of Jehovah’s witnesses in the Supreme Court of Canada opened a new era for the exercise of civil liberties and freedom of the press in Quebec. Censorship had been declared unconstitutional. No longer were public speakers and writers fearful of the heavy hand of a government prosecutor being used to halt the legitimate flow of information.
Another feature of Canadian life that has had a profound impact on Quebec has been the advent of television. As long as the habitant in his village knew only what the local priest told him, he could be readily deceived into believing that he was well cared for by his clerical keeper. But when television arrived, he began to see what the rest of the world was like and how backward the Catholic-controlled communities really were.
Though the Quiet Revolution has not been fought with guns, it has wrought immense changes in Quebec. But what of the entrenched position of Roman Catholicism?
Decline in Catholic Power
Canada 70 sociologists point out: “It was inevitable that the Catholic Church would some day have to relinquish its complete control of the people, and in Quebec the Church’s loss of power was sudden and dramatic.”
The Montreal Star carried the following account by writer Ralph Surette: “The power of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec has disintegrated; anguish and indifference on the part of both laity and clergy betray a state of crisis . . . The crisis is known. The commission takes as given (and confirms) what is common knowledge: that attendance at mass has dropped drastically, that priests are leaving, that many parishes are in financial trouble.”
The same article points to the impact on the clergy, saying: “Clericalism as an absolute power started to crumble at this time , paving the way for the state to become the prime institution in Quebec life in the 1960’s. . . . Over relatively few years, the Quebec priest has lost ‘both his social status and his audience.’”
So serious had become the problems of the Catholic Church that at the request of the bishops a government commission, the Dumont Commission, was appointed to investigate the “Laity and the Church.” The Commission’s 315-page report was released in December 1971, and mostly confirmed what well-informed people already knew: that the Church had lost the confidence of the people; that the clergy and laity are both leaving the Church.
As far as the people of Quebec are concerned, the common view often expressed is: ‘The Church has disappeared.’
“Leaving the Church in Droves”
Ultimately a church depends on the support of the people. The Dumont Report tells what has happened from this aspect of Catholic life: “During the last ten years, religious practice has dropped rapidly. It is most evident among the young, but the decline reaches progressively and more quietly the older people.”
Just how rapidly is shown by Relations, the Montreal publication for priests, which stated in March 1974: In ten years Sunday church attendance has dropped from 65 percent to 30 percent; and, among the young, between 15 and 35 years of age, it has gone down to 12 percent.
Bishop Léo Blais of Westmount has stated publicly that “the faithful are leaving the church in droves.”
There is also a serious problem of replacements in the priesthood. Seminaries for training priests have been closed in Nicolet, Joliette, Rimouski and Sherbrooke. The buildings are being used by the government for community colleges and, at Nicolet, for a police school.
Figures respecting candidates for the priesthood are revealing. The Dumont Report shows: “The annual figure of candidates for holy orders (priests and others) in our Church in 1946 was over 2,000, but in 1970 a little over a hundred.”
Relations stated in March 1974: “In 1968 the recruiting of priests began to drop rapidly . . . Many pastors are leaving the ministry. At the same time the recruiting of ministers has reached a minimum:3 new seminary students this year.” This is for Montreal, a diocese claiming 1,700,000 Catholics, more than one third of the church membership in the province.
Membership in Catholic organizations is also declining fast. The Sacred Heart League, which had 28,000 members 10 years ago, now has only 3,000.
Apart from the spiritual problems and personnel problems, there is also the difficulty in Quebec of simply maintaining the churches. Many of them are on the verge of bankruptcy.
A number of well-known churches in the city of Montreal have been demolished and the property used for other purposes. One of these is the Church of Notre-Dame-d’Alexandrie on Amherst Street. In this case the priest, Benjamin Tremblay, was happy to see his church being destroyed by the demolition crew. But why was he happy?
He is reported publicly to have said that the Church must now occupy itself with social and economic life in the area and that the new center will help the economically depressed section in which it stands. He had said earlier that it would be better to sell these churches than to keep “white elephants.” Eleven large Catholic churches have closed in Montreal since 1967, while others are slated either to be sold or to be wrecked.
Causes of Catholic Decline
What has happened? What led to the dramatic decline of Catholic power?
Lack of confidence in Catholic leadership has led to much uncertainty and this is not confined to Quebec. Andrew M. Greeley, a Jesuit critic of the U.S. hierarchy, has commented: “Honesty compels me to say that I believe the present leadership of the church is morally, intellectually and religiously bankrupt. We do not have the leaders who can communicate a sense of direction to us.”
The Canada 70 sociologists found within the Church in Quebec “an enormous credibility gap. The gap had reached such proportions that the laity found reason to suspect virtually all the movements within the hierarchy of the church.”
Bishop Léo Blais, already quoted, has also pointed to the clergy. According to him, some priests are presently sources of confusion in the Church in Montreal. Bishop Blais suggested that it is “our lack of discipline and our disobedience which has caused confusion in their minds and led many Catholics astray.”
“Is the Church Dead?”
“Is the Church Dead?” is a question asked in a headline by the French-language journal La Patrie of Montreal.
In reply, priest Hubert Falardeau said that the popes and bishops “have forgotten that the church was not a temporal society but a spiritual one. They wanted to have quantity of members and not members of quality. To keep people in the church it was necessary to have precepts. The people were not very well educated so they stuffed them full of precepts. All these things—the feast days, the big ceremonies, were used to draw big numbers of people.”
He further explains: “There is a de-Christianization because there was no real Christianization. When the church started, people were baptized when they were adults. Afterward it was presupposed that everybody was a Christian and they baptized them at birth.”
This Catholic priest now speaks about the need for real Christianization, adult baptism and missionary work among the people. These are the practices strictly adhered to by Jehovah’s witnesses and which have markedly contributed to the success of their activity. No one needs to ask if Jehovah’s witnesses are dead; their action and dedicated missionary work in all parts of the earth are an answer, not in words, but in action!
Jehovah’s witnesses’ engaged in a grass-roots missionary work from door to door among the people of Quebec. When Witness Everett Carlson of Joliette, Quebec, was asked what he observed among the Catholic people that would account for their changed attitude toward the Church, he said: “Since 1970 there has been a marked change in the attitude of the people. They are less afraid to speak to Jehovah’s witnesses, to ask questions and express themselves about the changes in the Church. They readily admit that altered teaching on hell fire, eating meat on Friday and many other things, have shaken their faith.”
It should be remembered that, while the Roman Church has lost much of its almost sovereign power in Quebec, it would be inaccurate to leave the impression that it has completely departed the scene. Younger people have in great measure withdrawn their support, but the older generation of both clergy and laity continue to give the Church a still not inconsiderable following. Ritual and habit die hard.
However, there have been rapid changes in Quebec between 1960 and 1974. The Quiet Revolution has led to many useful developments.