11 April, 2011

Je me souvien: Is English Canada destined to follow Quebec's decline?

Working as I do within the beauty of the Ottawa Valley, I see many cars pass by from “la belle province” emblazoned with the phrase “je me souviens” imprinted on each license plate. These words are a testament to the desire of this francophone people to always “remember” the struggles of “la révolution tranquille” (the Quiet Revolution) which transformed the Quebec society into a modern secular state. Under  vigorous new secular leadership, and faced with a wholesale ecclesiastical retreat from public affairs, the francophone population of the past 50 years, seemingly all at once, turned a deaf ear to the voice of the Quebec Church within their culture. They've chosen instead to consider only the siren cry of the  secularist project and modern consumerism. The church's counsel is no longer welcome in the public square. This sudden shift rendered the Catholic Church  both impotent and irrelevant in the minds of the overwhelming majority of the Quebec population. In just one generation almost 400 years of Catholic tradition was scrubbed out of the public square.

The parallel to the situation within the English Canadian Catholic Church of today might be difficult to see. Then it was young academics and labour leaders such as Pierre Trudeau and Jean Marchand, educated in church run colleges, who led the drive towards the “modernization” of the French project within Quebec. Having drunk deeply from the chalice of philosophy and reason that they studied in catholic schools, they stepped forward as leaders who took unto themselves the responsibilities and services once offered through the offices of the Church. One by one, institutions were  seconded from the care of the church into the hands of the state on a permanent basis.

Perhaps like any parent who sees their child begin to make a name for themselves, the Bishops, religious and clergy of Quebec sat back in silence, marveling at the success of their efforts to create a genuine francophone corps of leaders who could ensure the survival of the French fact in North America. Alas, their  progeny  did not share the faith of their mothers and fathers.

With an amazing rapidity, the church found that the majority of the people had rejected the moral authority of the church to speak to the issues of the day, dooming the church to relegation on the sidelines for the foreseeable future. The most graphic illustration of this shift can be seen in church attendance from before and after the 'révolution': from a high of  80% or more in 1960's to approximately 5%-10% today. The Quebec society is also  advanced in implementing a modern secular agenda: legalization of same-sex marriages, abortion on demand, and the stripping of religion from the public square.

This same process is happening again, only this time it is not a societal debate about the virtues of secularism or the role of Catholic institutions. Nor is it as it was in Quebec, an expression of a collective, pent up anger in the face of centuries of ecclesiastical control of culture and daily life. Rather, the moral suasion of the church is being rapidly eroded by the litany of sex abuse scandals that today confronts the Catholic Church. The unwillingness of church leaders to engage  effectively  in the societal debate that has erupted in the wake of these scandals  seems destined to ensure that history will repeat itself in English Canada. English Bishops seem to be following  the same tactics and strategies that failed so spectacularly not so long ago in Quebec.

There have been exceptions. Archbishop Anthony Mancini (Halifax) addressed this issue forcefully with an emotionally charged letter to Catholics in his Diocese in the wake of the 2009 Lahey pornography scandal. Others sometimes use the levers afforded them within both modern and traditional media forums  to offer the Catholic voice on key questions of the day. When called upon, Bishop Fred Henry (Calgary) has used these media to remarkable success in offering Episcopal instruction and teaching to his diocese and beyond. His clear and faithful writings on the issues facing the Canadian Church are mirrored today south of the border by Bishops like +Charles Chaput (Denver) and +Tim Dolan (NY) who have demonstrated an impressive mastery of the print (Chaput) and digital media (Dolan's recent 60 Minutes interview was a tour de force). Archbishops +Prendergast (Ottawa), +Collins (Toronto) and +Smith (Edmonton) among others also offer hope that the 'Catholic proposition' will be effectively presented in Canada from coast to coast for years to come. Alas there are too many gaps in their ranks and too few voices to  confront  those who are relentlessly attacking the church.

Too often today in Canada, episcopal teaching is relegated to theological pronouncements issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), speaking as it does  as the Bishops’ collective voice, teachings that are almost incomprehensible to a society which no longer understands religious language and imagery. I am reminded of wisdom well expressed by a couple of posters that were popular in the 70’s: “A Camel is a horse designed by a committee”, and, “God so loved the world that he did not send a committee”.   It is not a matter of desire that so many bishops are failing to communicate/teach their charges. To a man they genuinely want to fulfill their vocational calling as leaders, teachers and pastors. It is a matter of their methods not being effective in accomplishing that goal. By ceding to the CCCB the sole authoritative 'national voice' in explaining the Church's beliefs, the Bishops are open to the accusation by some Catholics of “passing the buck”; of not fulfilling their obligations to preach, teach and protect the faithful. Seemingly afraid to stand out from amongst their brothers, some Bishops have rendered themselves ineffective in guiding the faithful through  today's difficult waters.

The Bishops of English speaking Canada should consider the experience of their Quebec brethren, lest “je me souviens” become a lament of the English Catholic Church as well,squandering  the work and witness of generations past. Canadian Catholics need much more from all of today's religious leaders. It is time for Canadian clergy of all ranks to find within themselves whatever is needed to  engage forcefully in the questions of the day. The must us every lever at their disposal to defend the faith before all we have left of a once vibrant Church is memories.

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