Why the Quiet Revolution Was "Quiet": The Catholic Church's Reaction to the Secularization of Nationalism in Quebec after 1960

By Seljak, David | Historical Studies, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Why the Quiet Revolution Was "Quiet": The Catholic Church's Reaction to the Secularization of Nationalism in Quebec after 1960


Seljak, David, Historical Studies


Writing about the rapid secularization of Quebec society in the 1960s and 1970s, Hubert Guindon remarks, "In every respect except calendar time, centuries -- not decades -- separate the Quebec of the 1980s from the Quebec of the 1950s." (2) A similar observation might be made about the Church of Quebec and its development between 1960 and 1980. Before 1960, the Church exercised a virtual monopoly over education, health care, and the social services offered to French Quebeckers who formed the majority of the population. During his years as premier from 1944 to 1959, Maurice Duplessis had declared Quebec a Catholic province and actively promoted the Church's welfare. In 1958, more than eighty-five percent of the population identified themselves as Catholic and more than eighty-eight percent of those Catholics attended mass every Sunday. (3) A virtual army of nuns, priests, and brothers, which by 1962 numbered more than 50,000, oversaw the Church's massive bureaucracy. (4) This semi-established status and public presence was legitimated by the traditional religious nationalism, which united a conservative, clerical version of Catholicism and French Canadian ethnic identity.

By 1980, the situation had changed dramatically. The Quebec state had taken over the Church's work in education, health care, and the social services. This "Quiet Revolution" meant that the state and not the Church was to be "the embodiment of the French nation in Canada." (5) While the roots of the Quiet Revolution could be seen in the rapid economic growth and the growth of state power of the 1920s, (6) the changes of the 1960s were experienced as a dramatic shift. Thus the Church had to react both to its loss of real power and to its loss of control over the important symbols, stories, and values carried by traditional religious nationalism. By 1980 no nationalist group sought to promote a Catholic political culture or to remake Quebec's economy in conformity with the Church's social teaching. No one imagined that Quebec was a Catholic state. Like its control over schools, hospitals, and social services, the Church leadership saw its control over nationalist movements evaporate in two decades.

Remarkably, the Church reacted to the secularization of Quebec society with relative serenity. Certainly, the bishops and other religious leaders objected to the government's plans for the secularization of education and the religious communities opposed the reforms which turned their hospitals into public institutions. (7) But generally, Quebec society avoided the tragic cultural schism that marked the movement into secular modernity of Catholic countries like France and Italy. In Quebec, the Church did not withdraw into a "Catholic ghetto," anathematize the new society, and work towards a restoration of the old order. (8) Part of the reason for this was that many of the supporters of the reforms were members of the Church.

In Catholic societies, it is natural that opposition to the regime have its origins within the Church. The important question becomes how did Quebec avoid the history of schism experienced by France, Italy, Mexico, Spain and other Catholic countries? For although the Quiet Revolution was inspired by and promoted some complaints against religion, even anticlericalism, there was no massive rejection of religion on behalf of the modernizers. Even today, while only twenty-nine percent of Catholics attend mass on Sunday, most have retained their Catholic identity and insist on Catholic religious education for their children. (9)

The Quiet Revolution coincided with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which radically altered the Church's self-definition, and the emergence of a faith and justice movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. Jose Casanova has argued that the Council rejected any vision of religious establishment, that is, the use of state power to impose a Catholic religious monopoly on society. (10) Thus just as the Quebec state was declaring its autonomy from the Church, the Church was itself affirming the autonomy of political society, the freedom of individual consciences in political matters, and the need for citizens to involve themselves in the important debates and projects of their societies. …

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