French Canada: The Rise and Decline of a "Church-Nation"

By Lacombe, Sylvie | Quebec Studies, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

French Canada: The Rise and Decline of a "Church-Nation"


Lacombe, Sylvie, Quebec Studies


French-Canadian Catholic nationalism (2) was at first an outgrowth of the incorporation of a conquered New France within the British Empire; later on it was sustained by the ideological rivalry between French and English Canadians in defining the country they shared. As a conquered people, French Canadians were subjects of an alien sovereign, who, moreover, was head of the established Anglican Church. But, paradoxically, the British Crown, symbol of the imperial fie, was long seen as an ally in helping to protect the French-Canadian nation. In other words, French-Canadian nationalism was not directed against British domination; rather its goal was la survivance of French Canada, and with regard to that aim the Crown played a benevolent and crucial role.

In the background, but playing an influential role, interactions with the American neighbor were also instrumental in nourishing French-Canadian nationalism. From the Catholic Church's viewpoint, the powerful neighbor personified one of the many threats to French-Canadian culture while it nonetheless remained attractive, for economic reasons, to thousands of French Canadians. One purpose of those promoting clerical nationalism was to find a middle ground where economic development would be fostered without damaging their tightly-knit society. This nationalism, if unrealistic, was not strictly speaking reactionary: it did not want to preserve a pre-industrial society even though it was no doubt genuinely conservative. It sought rather to slow the pace of industrialization and urbanization in the province of Quebec and to encourage some sort of French-Canadian control over the economy.

This article addresses only some of the questions raised by French-Canadian Catholic nationalism. This is not a historiographical analysis, but rather a multidisciplinary essay that will touch upon the relation between church and state, and the social role played by the Catholic Church in a modern capitalist society. We will focus on the structural relationship between different leading institutional protagonists. We begin with a quick look at notions of nationality as they first appeared among the political elite of the colonial province of Quebec in the 1820s. The Patriot movement was in many ways similar to other early nineteenth-century movements for self-determination. Its inspiration was openly modern, but it nonetheless led to an impasse because, among other reasons, England relentlessly suppressed such dissent. Indirectly, this episode contributed to setting the stage for the Catholic Church to assume moral and political leadership, to the detriment of the liberal bourgeoisie.

Our attention then focuses on the contingencies and circumstances linked to the rise of the clerical nationalism that, notwithstanding some adaptations, was to last for over a century. As we shall see, Confederation strengthened the Catholic Church's hold on Quebec society by concentrating the main regulatory powers of the national space in the federal state and by leaving weaker powers of regulation to provincial states. We look more closely at the definition given to the French-Canadian nation by the Catholic clergy and examine some of its implications, for instance its ethno-cultural definition--the idea of la survivance--in relation to the economic challenge, and the association of the French language with the Catholic faith. What arose from the close relationship between Catholicism and nationalism was "French Canada" as an ideological and empirical notion, a sociological totality rather than a political one designed to compete with the political citizenship defined by the nascent Canadian state. In that organic unit, from a sociological viewpoint, the Church played the role of a state or quasi-state, providing the people with their main social institutions to such an extent that we talk of a "Church-Nation" to describe the phenomenon. Moreover, the Catholic Church can be seen as a factor modernizing French-Canadian society.

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