QUEBEC CITY — Pope Francis arrives in Quebec on Wednesday at a time when many French Canadians in the province are not only moving away from religion but explicitly rejecting it, embracing secularization long after their forebears built their identify on the rock of the Catholic Church.
Pews these days are rarely filled, hundreds of churches have closed and the provincial government has banned public service workers from wearing religious symbols.
“A lot churches are closing, and it’s very telling about the fading support that the population gives to the church,” said Jean-François Roussel, a theology professor at the Université de Montréal. “Some people are talking about the collapse of the Catholic Church in Quebec.”
Although nearly all of the province’s 6.8 million French speakers have Catholic roots, fewer than 10 percent attend Mass regularly, compared with 90 percent several decades ago.
Once-pervasive church influence over politics and culture has faded almost totally, and in what is known as the Quiet Revolution, it lost its central role in areas such as education and health care. That’s significant considering the Church founded Quebec’s school system and for decades controlled education, teacher training, welfare and health care.
Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, said Quebec was quite similar to Ireland and Southern Europe before 1960. At the peak of its influence from the 1930s to the 1950s, the church dominated people’s lives from conception to death and was closely intertwined with political leadership.
“It controlled cultural and intellectual life right down to what kind of books could be published, what sort of paintings and sculpture exhibited, what kind of plays performed,” wrote Stephen Clarkson and Christina McCall, biographers of Quebec-born former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who died in 2000.
The defeat of a conservative pro-Church party at the 1960 provincial elections and the victory of a progressive Liberal government empowered a new economic elite that pursued secularism, Béland said.
“Church attendance and fertility rates, which used to be among the highest in the Americas, also fell dramatically over a relatively short period of time, as Quebec modernized and its Francophone majority became more educated, prosperous and urbanized,” Béland said.
French Canadian nationalism in Quebec had been very much centered on Catholicism, but after the Quiet Revolution, its most dominant aspect became the French language, he said.
In 2003 there were 2,746 Catholic churches in Quebec. Since then 713 have been closed, demolished or converted, according to the Quebec Religious Heritage Council. Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec said last year the number of churches in the province is not sustainable.
“The number of new priests does not exceed 10 per year. This leads to a profound restructuring of parishes and dioceses,” said E.-Martin Meunier, a sociologist of religion at the University of Ottawa.
Meunier also noted that the proportion of newborns baptized as Catholic dropped more than 30 percent in the last 20 years, compared with just 13 percent from 1969 to 2001. Catholic marriages in Quebec also have plummeted for decades.
Today, Quebec’s government is staunchly secular, embracing policy and industry that seemingly runs counter to Catholicism’s conservative sexual ethic. In 2004, the province legalized same-sex marriage. Montreal, the largest city, has a lively sex industry.
In 2019, Quebec controversially prohibited civil servants in positions of authority such as teachers, police officers and prosecutors from wearing symbols of religion while at work. Critics say the ban is motivated by more recent growing anti-Muslim sentiment.
Religious leaders and civil rights advocates have opposed the prohibition, but it remains popular among the Francophone electoral base of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, which has been in power in the province since 2018.
“A new phase in the politics of secularism in Quebec began about 15 years ago, when religious accommodations for minorities such as Muslims became a major media and political issue,” said Béland, who underscored attempts to make secularism a key part of Quebec identity.
Clergy sex-abuse scandals also have tarnished the church. And the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of church-run Indigenous boarding schools has further damaged it.
Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Pierre’s son, publicly rebuked the church last year, saying he was “deeply disappointed” it had not offered a formal apology and made amends for its role in the schools where abuse was rampant.
A Catholic and Montreal native, he blasted the church for being “silent,” “not stepping up” and failing to show “the leadership that quite frankly is supposed to be at the core of our faith.”
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops had said in 2018 that the pope could not personally apologize for the boarding school abuses, but Francis has since done just that, at the Vatican this spring and again on Monday in Canada.
Father Antonio Hofmeister, a Brazilian priest who worked in Edmonton, Alberta, for several years and is now based in Rome, said church-state relations are strained in Canada, with Trudeau’s Liberal government and the Catholic Church differing on issues from abortion to euthanasia to same-sex marriage.
Francis was scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon with Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault.