The Death of the Traditional Church in Quebec and the Rise of Smorgasbord Religion

(Story and photos by: Robert J. Galbraith)
2/18/02

The Catholic and Protestant churches in Quebec are in dire trouble. Their inability to adapt to a changing world, dwindling congregations and an aging population, along with a lack of young people to replace them, has culminated in the demise of the church. As a result, an increasing number of unused church properties, along with their furnishings, are being sold to the private sector. This includes, churches and rectories, tracts of land, pews, bells and stained glass windows. Some churches have been sold and converted into pizza parlors, others into luxurious condominiums, or just boarded up and left abandoned.

“The Anglican Church is on the skids,” says George Crawford, a church warden at historic St. James Anglican Church, in St.-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, thirty-five-kilometres south of Montreal. “Last week we had three people at the Sunday service, in a church that can seat 250! And if things keep going the way they are, twenty-years from now we won’t have anyone in those churches. I guess we’re looking at closing them, selling them, or using them for some other purpose.”

But it’s not just the Protestant Church of Quebec, which is in a downward spiral. The power of the once dominant Catholic Church of Quebec has been reduced from a roar to a purr. The attendance rate at their churches has plummeted to the present rate of 7-8% capacity, down from a rate of 80-90% leading up to the 1960’s.

According to Francis Charet, a teacher of religious studies at Goddard College in Vermont, both institutions are the losers in a religious revolution which is sweeping the entire western hemisphere.

“We are in a period of religious change the likes of which we probably haven’t seen for two thousand years,” says Charet. “I think the closest comparison we can come to, if we look historically in western culture, is the period in which we saw the decline of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christianity. It’s of that magnitude, and we’re probably going to see fairly significant, if not catastrophic affects on some of the religious denominations of North America.

Charet believes that, “There’s no certitude in terms of where we’re going, but there’s been a major change that’s occurred in modern society and the western world. That change,” he says, “has had to do with individuals no longer feeling under the same need for, or obligation to, the religious conditions that are dominant in western society. That expresses itself in a decline in both attendance and spending time with particular beliefs associated with traditional teachings.”

The scope of the religious transition which is currently occurring in Quebec, is unique to the western world, says Charet. “Of all the territories and geographic regions in the western world, no decline matches that of what’s occurring in Quebec – there’s no question about it!
Quebec was a society traditionally dominated by a religious institution – the Catholic Church, which required of its members attendance and commitment. So we had parishes in Montreal with 85% membership in regular attendance, which now have dropped somewhere in the vicinity of 7 or 8%. It is a massive, major decline! We don’t see this anywhere else!”

He explained that the roots of Quebec’s religious downfall began in earnest in the 1950’s, during the second term of Premier Maurice Duplessis, who started to wrestle with and divert power away from the Catholic Church. The fall was to gain momentum after the death of Duplessis, in 1959, which signaled the start of a new era in Quebec – the Quiet Revolution (1960-66). Both of these events would be the catalysts which would see the Quebec population start to break away from religious dominance and tradition, and open the door to a new religious fervor – Quebec nationalism.

“So the allegiance gets transferred from a sense of identity that’s largely prescribed by Catholicism, onto the political stage and is best expressed as a form of French nationalism.” He went on to say that, “I don’t know that I would say nationalism is an exact substitute for God – but there are elements. When nationalism crosses over into promising things and creating a kind of emotional response that offers the possibility of a new life – of a kind of a salvation – even if it’s a secular one, then we’re talking about something that is strikingly like a religion, and Quebec nationalism has elements of that.”

He sees nationalism and economic dominance as the offspring of a failed church and comments that, “Nationalism and economic dominance are the dark or negative side of the decline of religion in our society, and I think we’re in a very precarious situation. But can we really expect, from those areas, the kind of answer that people are really looking for, at a deeper level? Personally I am not so sure that where we are heading, if we continue on the same trajectory, is going to be such a good thing.” Continuing, he said, “The rapidity of the change we see in Quebec with the decline of religion, and the substitution of a kind of political religion, with the accompanying instability and upheaval, is probably an example of what might happen on a larger more intense scale if these changes continue,” he said. “It just shows that a society gets kind of destabilized.”

The fallout from the population’s renunciation of the church can be seen in the province’s record-low birth rate, increased abortion rate, single-parent homes, divorce rates, and a reluctance to marry. “These situations were unheard of prior to the 1960’s,” said Charet. You get all these indicators of a fairly significant shift in Catholic backgrounds and specifically in those areas that were crucial to the Catholic’s identity”.

According to Statistics Quebec, as early as 2006 Quebec’s population will start to decline. A rock-bottom birthrate and a skyrocketing abortion rate are being blamed. It is also believed that immigration, at the present rate, will not be able to ameliorate the problem.
Quebec psychologist, Dr. Mary Harsany, has delved into the positive and negative aspects of a church-less population in Quebec, and its affect on their lives. “The church, in the past, has provided for people some kind of real authority, a sort of outer authority, so you really didn’t have to question too much. If you had some kind of decision to make in your life, like when should I have children, should I get married, just basic life decisions, it made life simpler. You would just know what was right or wrong, you would know that this is what you are supposed to do. You would have a whole system of beliefs, and you would be part of it,” she stated.

“Now, all of this is sort of being taken away. Now everyone has to rely on their own sense of right or wrong. We have to then rely upon ourselves to make moral decisions,” explained Harsany.

“Now that could be very good, and the positive part is that it forces us not to just look for answers from others, but to look into our own inner conscious authority. It can make us find out who we really are, each individual person. That’s the positive part,” said Dr. Harsany.

“The negative part is that a lot of people have lost that sense of belonging which can lead to a lot of confusion. That sense of no real authority out there, nobody to really rely on, who can tell you what is right or wrong, can bring a huge amount of anxiety to people.”
Dr. Harsany feels that the whole sense of community, which the church had provided has, or is being lost. “In the past the church was very much a sort of gathering place, a community, with church suppers. You knew young people would gather there, and you could perhaps find your future husband at church dances or other church functions. That sense of belonging and knowing who you are did provide people with a lot of comfort and sense of belonging and happiness,” she explained. “We just don’t know where that change is going to lead us,” concluded Dr. Harsany.

Francis Charet sees new-age worship stepping in and filling a good portion of the void left with the fall of the traditional church. “I think it’s quite interesting that, rather than seeing secularization as the result, we have all kinds of new religious movements of one sort or another. One is the westernization of eastern religious traditions, in particular Hinduism, and Buddhism. But not as it is practiced in Asian cultures; this is a form that’s being adapted to and re-configured in western society,” said Charet.

“I think the reason for the attraction of Buddhism is its psychological dimension which doesn’t involve all the heavy belief stuff that we see in Christianity or other traditions in western culture. There’s no need to have a god in the picture, or some heavy dogmatic or doctrinal traffic, it’s more mobile. I think Buddhism has, and will continue to make an impact on western culture.”

Charet further stated that new-age cults are also becoming a fixture in Quebec and are attracting disillusioned worshipers looking for answers in their spiritual life. “I think there’s no question that the Solar Temple-type cults, or these more extreme groups, have always been present in society, but they’re attracting more people and filling the vacuum caused by the decline of traditional religion. And what do they offer? It’s usually some charismatic leader, and a set of beliefs often kept secret, specific to the members of the group, so it creates a sense of solidarity and belonging. And it offers some explanation for what otherwise is not comprehensible in life. People,” he said, “for all kinds of reasons are inclined to identify with some kind of vision of reality and it’s usually one that they don’t formulate but rather is formulated for them by somebody else – people tend to be followers rather than leaders. So a so-called new-age perspective can often serve religion up in a very superficial way and I suspect in the face of the difficulties of life, it’s hardly an adequate solution or answer,” says Charet.

“I hear the younger generation say that they are not religious, in a practicing sense, but they are spiritual, and this comes right across the board. Spirituality’s in – religion’s out! I have students from all over the United States and they repeatedly argue on behalf of spirituality as opposed to religion,” explained Charet.

“What this really means to them is a personal view of life that tries to value other existence – that’s got a positive view of nature, with an ecological component to it. That’s a little vague, but still they feel rewarded with a deeper meaning to life, to which you can attach all kinds of needs, like pieces of Buddhism here and there, or a little of this and a little of that. It’s like running through the supermarket, grabbing whatever ingredients off the shelf that suit you at that time, and if you can’t throw it together in a certain way, you don’t get too concerned about it – if it doesn’t turn out, you just go looking for a few other things, or see what comes along. It’s a religious smorgasbord. But it has to be more formalized than that to have an impact,” he said.

“That is probably an interim view which is probably going to take us somewhere else, or we’re going to go into deeper decline and then the cultures are going to start to come apart. I don’t think it’s an adequate substitute for a more formal entity that we can agree is called God. It’s something like treading water. All of these things don’t come without a certain amount of difficulty and perhaps even danger for the culture.”

He believes that another reason the church is in trouble is because it is being replaced by other easily-had options or concepts. The church, and this includes Judaism, becomes an institution that provides certain things, such as how do you handle births, how do you handle marriage, how do you handle death? People pay their memberships in order to have these things addressed, but on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, do they really provide anything that can’t be found elsewhere, that people are not more attracted to – I think very little. This means decline.”

Charet believes that there has always been religion and there always will be a need for it, regardless of our present status. “There’s no time in human history when religion hasn’t been an essential part of human life. I think that religion is a part of what it is to be human. Some people will argue that religion is a stage in the history of human conscience, and we’re over it now and we’re going into a secular world. But all the evidence indicates that this is not the case. The argument of those who believe that the more rational you are, the less likely you are to have any religious inclinations, just doesn’t hold water. We know that it’s not true. It may sound good, but it is just not true.”

He concluded by stating that, “If the argument is true that religion is the glue that keeps a culture together, then we are starting to see, in the decline of religion, some of that glue breaking away. There are so many things that are indications of a society that’s in a period of anxiety or anguish. Religion has a therapeutic dimension to it and makes life more tolerable, and it makes death more tolerable, and when it’s not there, then what happens? People turn to forms of self-medication, alcohol, drugs and the whole show.”

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