Where Is Quebec Going? On Faith and Secularism
(Editor’s Note: Pope Benedict XVI asked Marc Cardinal Ouellet, archbishop of Quebec, to deliver the opening and closing speeches at the Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome in October of last year. Prior to the opening of the Synod, Cardinal Ouellet wrote the essay below for Vita e Pensiero, the magazine of the Catholic University of Milan.)
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From the outset, I state my conviction that the crisis of values and the search for meaning are so profound and urgent in Quebec as to have serious repercussions on public health as well, and this is generating enormous costs for the health system. For four hundred years, Quebec 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 reasons for the current tensions are to be sought elsewhere. The responsibility for the profound crisis of Quebec 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 Quebec 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 Bishop 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 Quebec just recently rejected a proposal to remove the crucifix from parliament.
Quebec’s real problem is not, therefore, the presence of religious signs or the appearance of new religious signs that intrude in public places. Quebec’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 Quebec 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 Quebec. The time has come to ask ourselves: "Quebec, 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.
Quebec 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.
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In the context of a discussion about "reasonable compromises," one cannot ignore the radical change that the state of Quebec 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 Quebec’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 naïveté to believe that this miracle of the cultural teaching of religion will manufacture a new little inhabitant of Quebec, 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 Quebec 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 Quebec society?
Quebec has always lived in and 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.
This item 8749 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org