In February the Saint-Sacrement Hospital in Quebec City – found- ed by Catholics, but now secular – removed a large crucifix from
its lobby after receiving a complaint.
Normally this would not be newsworthy, but the hospital received
600 phone calls and a petition with
thousands of signatures, all demanding the crucifix be returned to
its place. A week later it was back.
This incident highlights some of
the paradoxes of religion in Quebec.
In terms of attendance, Quebec is
the least religious part of the country. According to 2011 data only 17
per cent attend church in any given
month, compared to 27 per cent of
the country as a whole.
At the same time, the people of
Quebec are more likely to identify
with a religion than are other Canadians. While 24 per cent of all
Canadians claim they have no religion, in Quebec that number is only
12 per cent. In fact the large majority of Quebeckers – 75 per cent –
consider themselves Catholics.
Strange as it may sound, Quebec
is a society both overwhelmingly
Catholic and highly irreligious.
How did it get to be this way?
For most of Quebec’s history,
Catholicism was central to French
Canadian identity. From the founding of New France with the help of
Catholic missionaries in the 1600s
to the 1950s, Catholicism was
closely entwined with the identity
of French Canada. Catholicism set
Quebec apart from its predominantly Protestant neighbours in
Canada and the U.S.
That Catholic identity was accom-
panied by strong devotion. Many
people felt called to join the priest-
hood or a religious order. In the
postwar 1950s, weekly church at-
tendance of Quebec Catholics was
as high as 88 per cent — one of the
highest rates of church attendance
ever recorded in a modern society.
The Catholic Church also played
a central social role by running most
of the province’s schools and hospitals, like Saint-Sacrement – whose
name refers to Christian sacraments
such as baptism and the Eucharist.
All of this changed in the 1960s
during a period known as the Quiet
Revolution. A political shift led the
provincial government to take over
health care and education from the
Church. A new, secular form of
Quebec identity emerged. From
then on Quebec sought to assert its
distinctiveness through its use of
the French language and its attempt
to control its own natural resources
and major businesses.
Alongside these changes a profound religious transformation took
place. Church attendance dropped
rapidly, falling to only 48 per cent
monthly attendance in 1986, and 17
per cent monthly attendance in 2011.
To a large degree, as Quebeckers
stopped attending church, they also
stopped following Catholic teachings, especially in the area of family
and sexuality. Birthrates plummeted while abortion rates soared.
Historians disagree about why
this all happened. One reason was
the rise of intellectuals and political
figures, including a young Pierre
Elliott Trudeau, who opposed the
involvement of the Catholic
Church in politics and worked to
create a more secular public square.
Changes within the Catholic
Church itself also played a role. A
new generation of lay and clerical
leaders called for a more modern
Catholicism that would play a less
dominant role in Quebec. They saw
the positive stance toward modern
trends displayed at Vatican II, a
major international Catholic council held between 1962 and 1965, as
supporting their position.
These Catholic leaders welcomed
the changes of the Quiet Revolution.
They were optimistic that with a
new attitude Christianity would
fare well in Quebec after the Quiet
Revolution. In hindsight their
hopes were disappointed.
The secularization of Quebec has
contributed to the secularization of
Canada as a whole. It has helped
create a sense that religion does not
really belong in the public sphere,
and has pulled the country in a more
liberal direction on some social
issues of concern to Evangelicals
such as abortion and euthanasia.
As in other formerly Catholic
societies like Spain, it can be diffi-
cult for evangelicalism to gain a
hearing. Many Quebeckers have no
practical use for religion, but still
think of Catholicism as normal and
other religions as exotic imports.
They may be secular, but it’s a Cath-
olic kind of secularity.
Whether or not there is a crucifix
on the wall in the hospitals, Que-
bec’s Evangelicals continue to share
the gospel of the crucified one with
their secular neighbours. They de-
serve our prayers and support. /FT
The secularization of Quebec has pulled the
country in a more liberal direction on social
issues such as abortion and euthanasia.
WHO AT TENDED
UNKNOWN GODS, 1993
Secularization in la belle province
What happens in Quebec does not stay in Quebec
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history
and director of research at Redeemer
University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more
at www.Faith Today.ca/HistoryLesson.
AT TEND CHURCH IN
AN Y GIVEN MON TH
PEW FORUM, 2011