Three weeks ago, in a province with the lowest rate of Church attendance in Canada, 50,000 people attended Mass to honor the canonization of Québec’s first homegrown saint. Born into poverty in 1845 and orphaned at the age of 12, largely illiterate and chronically sickly, “Brother André” has been acclaimed as the archetypical hero of a Québec that seems largely unrecognizable today. Since his death in 1937, this lowly monk has been credited with as many as 125,000 miraculous healings, while the enormous oratory built in his honor continues to attract two million visitors every year. All this in the most secular province in Canada, where half of all children are born out of wedlock and less than 15% of the population attends Church on a regular basis (even though 83% continue to identify as Catholic!). The widespread enthusiasm elicited by Brother André’s canonization thus offers a rare insight into the persistence and deep political ambivalence of religion in Québec.
When Brother André died in 1937, he could not have foreseen the radical changes that would transform the deeply traditional and pious province in which he had lived and died. Since French Canada had fallen to the British in the eighteenth century, its inhabitants had cleaved close to their Church as a means to preserve their minority language and way of life. Thanks to its monopoly over education, health care and social welfare, the Church maintained a firm grip over Québec society well into the mid-twentieth century. It preached a particularly anti-modern, ultramontane, traditionalist form of Catholicism that was deeply suspicious of capitalist business practices. By the time of Brother André’s death, therefore, French Canada was still very much a rural, poor, and pious society isolated from the outside world.
All this suddenly changed with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. In the years prior to this, French-Canadian discontent had grown progressively stronger. Despite their vast numerical preponderance, French Canadians were almost entirely excluded from positions of socioeconomic power in the province, left at the mercy of American or English-Canadian business interests. Vowing to reverse this trend, Jean Lesage rode to power in 1960 on a campaign to make Quebeckers “maîtres chez nous” (“masters in our own domain”). Lesage presided over the rapid transformation of Québec society by establishing a powerful welfare state that would take over most of the social services traditionally performed by the Church. In addition to decimating the social power of the Catholic Church, the effect of these reforms was to produce a new generation of French Canadians: middle-class, highly-educated, progressive, secular, and deeply conscious of their former second-class status.
In other words, the Quiet Revolution lies at the origin of the language politics which have dominated Québec society ever since. In 1968, René Lévesque founded the nationalist Parti Québécois, which continues to lead the campaign for Québec’s national independence. The nationalist movement would inspire a terrorist campaign in the 1970s, as well as province-wide referendums on the Separation question in 1980 and 1995. I moved to Québec three months before this most recent referendum, when the Separatist motion was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 50.58% to 49.42%.
Where does this leave the Church in Québec today? It would appear that Brother André’s canonization has reawakened a certain nostalgia for the province’s Catholic past. Both the French- and English-language coverage of the canonization has been overwhelmingly positive, claiming Brother André as the archetypal Québécois hero. His humility and simple piety, his poverty and lowly status, vindicated by the posthumous fame he has now acquired, have been widely hailed as the hallmark qualities of the resilient “little people” Québec once was. That the Vatican and the high clergy long regarded the miraculous cures attributed to Brother André with deep suspicion also makes him the heroic representative of a distinctly Québécois popular piety resistant to the impositions of clerical authority.
And yet, several articles in Montreal’s French-language newspapers have sounded a more ambivalent note. Le Devoir’s Christian Rioux reminds us that the virtues of humility, powerlessness, and passive piety represented by the new saint are precisely those which kept French Canadians under the thumb of English Canada for so long. Sentiments like these point to the deep political ambivalence of the Church’s role in modern Québec. On one hand, the Church represents a pillar of French-Canadian cultural heritage that nationalists cannot easily dispense with. After all, the Church played a major role in the four-hundred-year preservation of an embattled French language and culture in North America. Moreover, the extensive state-subsidized social welfare system which remains at the heart of Quebec’s political culture is in many ways an extension of the social programs the Church performed for hundreds of years—from education and health care, to trade unions and care for the poor. On the other hand, the contemporary discourse of Québécois nationalism emerged largely at the expense of this Catholic heritage. The massive expansion of the state and of French-Canadian consciousness wrought by the Quiet Revolution meant that the state and the language question effectively replaced religion at the forefront of Québécois identity. Perhaps this helps to explain how the Church-going population could have declined so drastically—from 85% to 15%—in only forty years.
And yet, for a province whose motto is “Je me souviens,” the kind of strategic amnesia which post-1960s Québécois nationalism tends to require vis-à-vis the province’s Catholic heritage, is difficult to sustain. This ambivalence is perhaps best captured by Le Devoir’s headline announcing Brother André’s canonization: “Brother André: symbol of pride or of a backwards, passive Québec?” The incredible transformation of the province’s ethnic makeup in the past forty years has added yet another complicating factor to this story, as the influx of non-Catholic immigrants to Québec interacts with the matrix of linguistic and religious politics outlined above. The case of Brother André also offers fascinating insights into this problem, famously studied by Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard, which I will exmine in my next blog post.