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Tourists walk through the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. (ANDRE FORGET)
Tourists walk through the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. (ANDRE FORGET)

Globe Essay

Neither practising nor believing, but Catholic even so Add to ...

How could it be otherwise? The Church so dominated the lives of Quebeckers for more than three centuries that Catholicism became as important a cultural marker for them as language. Municipalities are still widely referred to as paroisses (parishes), and there isn't a Québécois swear word worth its weight in shock value that isn't also an object used in the Catholic mass. Every saint, no matter how obscure, has a village or street named for him or her, from Cléophas to Tharcisius. The national holiday is officially known as la Fête nationale , but only bureaucrats, TV announcers and politicians call it that. To everyone else, it's still la Saint-Jean Baptiste .

On this particular Sunday, Father Rivard has four baptisms to perform. Most of the parents, he tells me, aren't married and don't attend church regularly. That is the norm in today's Quebec. It's estimated that more than half of the more than 80,000 children born in the province each year are baptized. Like their non-practising parents, they will grow up to become, as Father Rivard likes to call them, "baptized pagans," wholly ignorant of the significance of the sacraments they've received.

In pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec, failure to learn one's catechism by heart would earn you a smack from the nuns who ran the schools. But the generations that have grown up since, almost all of whom attended catechism class, haven't retained much at all. A poll conducted last year for Radio-Canada, for instance, showed that only 11 per cent of Quebeckers could name the four Evangelists. Smack.

Quebeckers, it seems, are Catholic in name only. Quebec has among the highest rates of common-law marriage, children born out of wedlock, abortion and suicide in the developed world. A poll out this week showed that 77 per cent of Quebeckers are in favour of euthanasia, endorsing a recent proposal by the Quebec College of Physicians to debate the legalization of a practice that is pure heresy to any true Catholic.

Baby-boomer Quebeckers still display palpable hostility toward the Church establishment - the one that excommunicated the Patriotes, that forced their mothers and grandmothers into reproductive servitude, that controlled access to higher education, that turned a blind eye to sexual abuse, that flirted with fascists and that colluded with reactionary politicians to keep French-Canadians in a permanent state of backwardness. When, in 2007, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the highest-ranking Catholic in the province, wrote an open letter in which he repented for the Church's sins, it was roundly attacked as an opportunistic ploy to reassert Church authority.

Yet, try to toy with Quebeckers' selectively chosen Catholic traditions and you risk losing an arm. André Boisclair, the former Parti Québécois leader, almost lost his when he suggested, in 2007, that the time had come to remove the crucifix from the National Assembly. When the Bouchard-Taylor commission on the so-called reasonable accommodation of religious and ethnic minorities made the same recommendation last year, Premier Jean Charest didn't even wait until the ink was dry to reject it. He knew instinctively what Quebeckers wanted.

The vitriolic debate over reasonable accommodation, or accra as it's known in French shorthand, was sparked, more than anything else, by the fear (or realization) that so much of what had defined Quebec society for generations was dying. A backlash was inevitable. It happened again when parents got wind of the government's intention - first announced when the province's school boards were deconfessionalized in the late 1990s - to replace optional catechism classes with a mandatory course on ethics and religious culture. Until the ERC course was introduced last fall, the majority of French-language students had continued to study catechism, even though their parents were non-practising. Quebeckers largely agree they need diversity training, but fear that it might cost them their cultural, if not moral, bearings.

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