15 May 2014

Losing faith: Québec at the crossroads

What happens when a people loses faith in its gods?

Half a century ago the province of Québec underwent a sea change that saw a once Roman Catholic monolith become radically secularized in a breathtakingly brief period. Where once the ecclesiastical hierarchy had presided over, not only churches, but schools, universities, labour unions, hospitals and charities, many people in La Belle Province felt a need for liberation from what they had come to consider an oppressive institutional presence dominating so many facets of life.

This Révolution tranquille, or Quiet Revolution, coincided with the coming to office in 1960 of Jean Lesage’s Liberal government in Québec City. Lesage’s premiership promised to open up Québec society after a generation of Union Nationale rule under the recently deceased premier, Maurice Duplessis. Québec was on the move. While Montréal was preparing to host a world’s fair to celebrate Canada’s centenary, Quebeckers were trying to establish a new identity after the virtual collapse of the Catholic Church’s authority. Would they find their place within a renewed Confederation or would they go it alone?

While generations of Québécois had felt estranged from a spiritually apostate France after the 1789 Revolution, this antirevolutionary ethos vanished during the 1960s. The French Revolution had begun when Louis XVI had convoked the Estates General. Shortly thereafter, the Third Estate, consisting of commoners, rose up and abolished the first two estates, representing the clergy and nobility, declaring itself l’Assemblée nationale, that is, the National Assembly.

In 1968, in an eerie echo of the events of nearly two centuries earlier, Québec similarly abolished the upper chamber of its provincial legislature, le Conseil legislatif, while the lower chamber, l’Assemblée legislative, changed its name to – you guessed it – l’Assemblée nationale! The French Revolution had finally caught up with La Belle Province. That same year saw the formation of the Parti québécois, which sought a wholly French-speaking nation separate from Canada.

Much as the 1789 Revolution had seen France shift from a highly centralized absolute monarchy under the Bourbon kings to a series of highly centralized post-revolutionary régimes, so the Quiet Revolution saw Québec emerge out from under the weight of a monolithic church into the hands of an equally monolithic state, which replaced the old bishops in controlling schools, universities and hospitals. Gradually, faith-based schools, ostensibly protected by the Constitution Act, 1867, were phased out by both Liberal and PQ governments, while even private schools, such as Montréal’s Loyola High School, are being pressured to conform to an officially-mandated religious relativism, which holds that all religions are equally true – or, perhaps more accurately, equally false.

Finally, as if to cap off the process of secularization, the PQ government of Premier Pauline Marois had proposed a Charter of Québec Values, which would establish the supposed religious neutrality of the provincial government and ban the wearing of overt religious symbols for public employees. With the dissolution of the National Assembly, the Charter – numbered Bill 60 – died, although the new Liberal government of Philippe Couillard has unwisely decided to revive a diluted version in the new Assembly.

With the recent defeat of Marois’s PQ government, some observers, such as the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, are heralding the demise of separatism after nearly half a century. But this is almost certainly premature, as separatism’s death knell has been sounded many times before.

Yet even if separatism is in terminal decline, Québec’s enduring quest to establish a post-christian identity will not go away any time soon. The heart needs to believe something. When a society loses faith in the true God, a thousand idols will compete to replace it. For the past two generations, Quebeckers have looked to l’État du Québec – the Québec state – as their established church and nationalism as their new religion. But this faith will not ultimately satisfy.

St. Augustine famously addressed God with these words: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” At some point, Quebeckers may come to recognize the spiritual emptiness of a secularizing nationalism as they taste the sour fruit of an overgrown state trying to impose its values on society. Unlikely to return to the days of an overextended church institute, Quebeckers may one day nevertheless stand at a crossroads where they will be face to face with the God who revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ. Let us pray that they choose the right path.

David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College and is the author, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Pickwick Publications, 2014). This appeared in the 12 May issue of Christian Courier as part of his monthly “Principalities & Powers” column.

13 May 2014

Autonomy's Triumph in Canada: what George Parkin Grant foresaw

The late Canadian philosopher, George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), argued that, while the American experiment south of the border was preoccupied with the development of technique in the service of the expansive desires of sovereign individuals, both English and French Canadians were traditionally more communitarian in orientation. However, already half a century ago Grant lamented that Canada was becoming more individualistic and almost certainly for the worse. Although Grant initially expressed concern about the homogenizing influences of liberalism and capitalism on his country’s distinctive traditions, in his last decades he became increasingly worried about the easy acceptance of euthanasia and abortion in western societies and the inevitable cheapening of human life that would follow in its wake.

Unlike most of his socially-prominent extended family, including his nephew, former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, Grant was no fan of liberalism and held the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in particular disregard. Were he still alive today, Grant would be livid at what his nemesis’ son, the current Liberal leader, has unilaterally decreed to his parliamentary caucus: Anti-abortion candidates need not apply in 2015, Justin Trudeau says.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says all candidates running for nomination to represent the Liberal Party in 2015 will have to support the party’s pro-choice position, but that the same rule does not apply to sitting MPs. “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills,” Trudeau said Wednesday following his party’s weekly caucus meeting in Ottawa. . . . “We are steadfast in our belief ... it is not for any government to legislate what a woman chooses to do with her body. And that is the bottom line.”

But the Liberals are not alone. Although Grant, as a Red Tory, tended to support the Conservative Party, he would scarcely be enthusiastic about what that party has become today under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who moved two years ago to shut down a backbencher’s effort to reopen the issue of when human life begins. Unlike the Liberals and the socialist New Democrats, the Conservative position seems to be to tolerate pro-lifers as long as they keep their mouths shut on the matter in the House of Commons. This means that all three major federal parties have effectively banished pro-lifers to the political wilderness. The autonomous person, liberated from the constraints of the past and free perhaps even from the stigma of social disapproval of his chosen lifestyle, has become the new god of the Canadian civil religion, almost totally eclipsing whatever communitarian elements have managed to survive the cultural shifts of recent decades.

The notion of freedom as the right to define ourselves autonomously was famously heralded by the US Supreme Court’s notorious Planned Parenthood vs Casey decision in 1992. But, as Grant feared so many decades ago, this notion has expanded north of the 49th parallel. If John Locke is right that “everyone is orthodox to himself,” then perhaps freedom as autonomy must be held to trump the claims, not only of institutional religions, but of any faith that recognizes that we answer to God and to the covenant community he has called into being. A Catholic like his late father, Justin Trudeau objects to anyone who might question that status based on his abortion stance. The use of such expressions as “a private matter” and “between God and me” suggests that his Catholicism, however sincere, has been considerably attenuated by Canada’s civil religion, which, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, will brook no dissent, particularly from those whose faith entails obedience to something beyond the socially-sanctioned quest for autonomy.

Grant would definitely not be pleased.


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