Quebec is a province of 8 million in a large but thinly populated nation of 32 million. But its cultural and social significance in Canada, and in the Western world, is all out of proportion to its size.
In the 1960s, Quebec went through something called the Quiet Revolution. This was not just a political change. It was essentially a religious, cultural and social change. Until then, Quebec society had developed on the basis of what we might call its old trinitarian world view – trinitarian in that it was based on three pillars: clericalism, agriculturalism and anti-statism. But then, in a matter of a few years, Quebec abandoned this world view and replaced it with an entirely new one, which also happened to be trinitarian, except that the three pillars were now quite different. They were secularism, multiculturalism and statism.
Quebec is certainly the most secularist and statist province in Canada, so much so that the Quebec government is currently implementing a new school curriculum – Ethics and Religious Culture. Its avowed purpose is to teach children an ideology – the ideology of so-called "normative pluralism", whereby they will be told that religious faith and practice are all right as long as people don’t take these matters too seriously. It’s a program that is designed to deter children from assimilating the basic tenets of the two cultural institutions most likely to influence their world view, their families and their churches, and to turn them into passive citizens, looking for guidance in all matters to the state rather than to civil society institutions.
This could have serious consequences for the future of Quebec as a free society. Our civil freedoms are largely the result of a healthy tension and cooperation between those who hold spiritual authority and those who hold public authority. Indeed, the fundamental principles of a free society, eg, the spiritual basis of limited government, the concept of human dignity, freedom of conscience, equality of all human beings before the law, are an outgrowth of the Christian tradition. It was not the philosophers of the Enlightenment, but rather Catholic medieval theologians, who were the first to imagine a society that allowed civil freedom for everyone. They were the ones who attempted to develop a system of civil law based on Christ’s injunction that we should render unto God what is God’s, but unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Indeed, the fact that Christianity developed a civil order in which the Church as an institution plays no part, an order in which the conscience is free, and in which law and order is the province of the State, makes it unique, an exception among all religions.
This point was well developed by the Scottish philosopher A.D. Lindsay in The Modern Democratic State (1943). He noted the following in particular:
"It was perhaps equally important that the existence and prestige of the Church prevented society from being totalitarian, prevented the omnicompetent state, and preserved liberty in the only way that liberty can be preserved, by maintaining in society an organization which could stand up against the state (…) The history of the relations between Church and state in the Middle Ages is the history of a long dispute waged with wavering fortune on either side. (…) But the disputes, however long and embittered, were boundary disputes. Neither party denied that there were two spheres, one appropriate to the Church, the other to the state. Even those partisans who made high claims for their side did not deny that the other side had a sphere of its own. They only put its place lower than did their opponents. The Christian always knew that he had two loyalties: that if he was to remember the apostle’s command ‘to be subject unto the higher powers’, he was also to remember that his duty was ‘to obey God rather than man’. There are things which are Caesar’s and things which are God’s. Men might dispute as to which were whose, but the fact of the distinction no one denied."
But what does all this have to do with the rest of Canada, or the rest of Western society, for that matter?
All indications are that, in recent decades, the rest of Canada has followed the same trend as Quebec, but at a slower pace. For example, English-speaking Canada, while much inclined to impose moral relativism (also known as multiculturalism), as a kind of established religion, has not yet reached the stage of compelling all school children to follow a particular ideological curriculum, as is the case in Quebec. Quebec therefore may give us some insight into what the future holds for the rest of the country.
The point here is that French and English Canada both appear to be suffering, albeit in different degrees, from the same growing spiritual illness that people like J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis wrote about throughout the last century. It’s a loss of hope and purpose resulting from the loss of interior life and a living faith. The history of both Catholic and Protestant Christianity in Canada over the past 50 years has been largely, although not exclusively, one of erosion of Christian doctrine and morals and of buying into secularism.
There is a lesson to be learned here: what began as an attempt to make Christianity appealing to the sceptic ends up devoid of anything specifically Christian. Adapting the Christian faith to modernity results, not in Christianizing the latter, but in de-Christianizing the former.
The emergence of secularism and moral and cultural relativism as the dominant Canadian ethos in recent decades raises concerns about the very future of Canada. When people are no longer inspired by an interior life and a living faith, they seek satisfaction in outer things like material comfort, drugs, sex or political and social activism.
The end result is that the old public culture based on the Christian tradition disintegrates, which in turn requires that some other agent take responsibility for maintaining a minimum of cultural and social cohesion. The State thus ceases to be responsible solely for temporal matters and takes on a moral and spiritual role, which means that it in effect becomes totalitarian. And the only thing that prevents it from indulging in hard totalitarianism – as opposed to soft totalitarianism – is the residual portion of the Christian tradition that has not yet been eliminated.
The only difference between Quebec and Canada is that Quebec is slightly ahead of the rest of Canada on the road toward moral and spiritual servitude to the State. What this points to is the need for Canadians to reintegrate the Christian tradition. As Christopher Dawson wrote in 1950, "the Church still stands as she stood fifteen hundred years ago, as the one earthly representative of an eternal order which survives the fall of empires and civilizations; and the darker become the prospects of secular culture, the more clearly does the Church stand out as a city of refuge for humanity".
Richard Bastien is an Ottawa-based freelance writer and a member of the Editorial Board of the French language quarterly Égards.