Now-secular Quebec symbolizes challenge facing Pope Francis
Just 60 years ago the Roman Catholic Church held such sway in the Canadian province of Quebec that Protestant evangelists were jailed for refusing to stop preaching in the street.
A key challenge facing Pope Francis is the increasing secularization of Western society, and few places demonstrate this issue more than Quebec, where the Church’s influence is a shadow of the near-absolute power its held before the 1960s.
Lorne Heron, now 87, was a 23-year-old Baptist pastor in the Quebec gold-mining town of Val d’Or in 1949 when he started holding open-air gospel meetings on the sidewalks.
He and four others were arrested for what authorities said was blocking traffic, and they spent a month in jail. Over the following five years, he was arrested seven times, and he spent a total of a year in jail. Some 37 arrests were made for the same charges involving about 20 people.
“The bishop in Amos told the priest in Val d’Or to see that these meetings were stopped,” Heron said by telephone from his current home in Montreal. “In those days when the priests said something, people had to obey.”
At one point so many Protestant evangelists were in jail that the Baptists organizing the meetings called for reinforcements.
“They had indicated there was nobody left who could go to the streets in Val d’Or,” said Newton McKenzie, now 94, who went to Val d’Or from Montreal, preached on the street and was also jailed.
A spokeswoman for the Amos bishopric, asked to comment on those events, said the people involved were no longer around. Joseph Desmarais, bishop of Amos in this period, died in 1979.
A large majority of Quebeckers still identify themselves as Catholic, but the Church’s sway has shrunk dramatically in what is now a fiercely secular province.
The parents in 48 percent of families in the province are unmarried, according to 2011 figures, and an estimated three out of five babies are born out of wedlock.
Quebec was one of the first Canadian provinces to allow same-sex marriage, a concept the Catholic Church rejects, and in 2005 the French-speaking province reported 38 abortions for every 100 live births, according to Statistics Canada.
“Quebec is such a paradox,” said McGill University historian John Zucchi. He said the province had the lowest rate of practice among Catholics in North America but was also the province with the highest rate of identification as Catholics.
The main trigger to changes to the role of the Catholic Church in Quebec was the so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, which started throwing off Church control and helped transform the province from one of Canada’s most religious areas to one of its least religious.
Another telling development came in the late 1990s, when publicly funded Roman Catholic and Protestant school boards — once protected under the Canadian constitution — were replaced with a secular system divided into French-language and English-language schools.
The Roman Catholic Church came out against same-sex marriage in Canada and Quebec, much as Pope Francis did as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in Argentina, to no avail.
In Canada as a whole, 43 percent of Canadians identified themselves as Catholic in 2001, down two points from a decade earlier. But the number of those who said they had no religious affiliation jumped from less than 1 percent in 1971 to 16 percent in 2001.
Eighty-three percent of Quebec residents still identified themselves as Catholic in the 2001 census, the last census for which figures are available. But church attendance is way down.
A recent survey of young Canadian adults found 12 percent attended religious services weekly, and only 3 percent in Quebec.
“It’s agnostic,” Heron, the now-retired Baptist pastor, said of Quebec today. “They’re selling churches right and left in Quebec.”