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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 ...

The philosopher Charles Taylor, co-chair of the accra commission, points out that Quebeckers are not the only society of lapsed Catholics to show an attachment to religious traditions without necessarily embracing the doctrine. Millions of non-practising Germans continue to pay confessional taxes, for instance, even though simply declaring themselves as non-Catholics would spare them the expense. The most secular societies in the West also "retain the vestigial public reference to God in public space," Prof. Taylor writes in A Secular Age . In contrast, the United States, which was one of the earliest societies to separate Church and State, is "the Western society with the highest statistics for religious belief and practice."

CATHOLICISM À LA CARTE

For Reginald Bibby, Quebeckers practise their Catholicism "à la carte." They take what they like and reject the rest. His research, based on detailed polling, shows that Quebeckers are open to a greater spiritual dimension in their lives, but curiously have gravitated much less than other Canadians to other religions. "They are not open to just any religious supplier," explains Prof. Bibby, who teaches sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in a 2007 study. "If the forms of religious innovation that are required to offset secularization are to appear, they are going to have to be initiated by the religious group Quebeckers are so reluctant to abandon - the Roman Catholic Church."

Good luck with that. Another study completed this year by Prof. Bibby showed that only 9 per cent of high-school-aged Quebeckers identified themselves as Catholics. This suggests that, for each subsequent generation of post-Quiet Revolution Quebeckers, the Church loses more and more of its pull. The parish steps where forefathers assiduously greeted the curé each Sunday may, for young Quebeckers, be nothing more than a good place to skateboard.

One tradition from Quebec's Catholic past is destined to never die, though. It is Quebeckers' penchant for congregating in logistically mind-boggling numbers in communion with one another. In decades past, it was religious occasions that brought them out. In 1937, more than a million Quebeckers showed up to pay their last respects to Brother André, a gentle miracle maker who makes Celine Dion look like a minor celebrity.

Now, though the celebrations are secular, when not blatantly commercial, there is something distinctly liturgical about them. Like religion itself, it is a powerful force to behold.

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