Gilles Routhier, a professor in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at Laval University and a priest of the Archdiocese of Quebec, is an expert in religious studies, specializing in the history and teaching of Vatican II, as well as in the manner it was received in Canada. He is also superior general of the Séminaire de Québec.
In this article as part of our series on the significance of Jesuits in today’s context, Professor Routhier explains the place of Catholicism in Quebec in the 21st century. In his view, even if a certain image of Catholicism in Quebec is disappearing, the Catholic Church itself is not disappearing but is rather being challenged to renew itself.
Although the article focuses on Quebec, Routhier’s words are equally applicable to other contexts in the rest of the country. Jesuits, no matter where they are, can offer and be a “sign” that it is possible to live differently.
What is the place of Catholicism in Quebec today? Is it becoming obsolete?
The role of Catholicism in Quebec has evolved significantly, though not simply in terms of decline or disappearance (as it may seem after superficial observation). I believe that it is rather a certain image of Catholicism that is disappearing. And this image, in its most developed form, is relatively recent, that is, from roughly 1840 to 1945.
These images of Catholicism come and go; and if one happens to disappear, it does not mean that Catholicism itself is dying. The Church maintains a certain continuity through these images, these expressions and these developments. And this is one of its forms that is changing in a significant way today.
Does this contemporary image of the Church meet the needs of people in Quebec?
Underlying your question is the belief that religion must respond to a person’s needs. So, we seem to be leaning toward a logic of the marketplace. It is not wrong, necessarily, but it’s a rather utilitarian vision of religion, and I think that the Church’s contribution can be more than that.
Indeed, the functions attributed to the Catholic Church or Catholicism in Quebec are disappearing one by one. Protecting the nation was one of the functions that disappeared most rapidly once the government assumed responsibility for culture and identity. As expressed in the saying “faith is the guardian of language,” the Church had been the institution that was able to protect French Canadians. Now, the government is in charge. And the same thing happened when Quebec decided to invest in education, health services and social services; the Church is no longer useful as a provider of these types of services. The social relevance of the Church had been justified on the grounds that it provided citizens with essential rites of passage: baptism, marriage, funerals and so on. But today, birthdays have replaced baptisms, weddings are celebrated on the beach or by the pool just as often as in church, and funeral rites have become increasingly secularized. As a result, this third function of the Church has disappeared. We then retreated into spiritual needs or spiritual comfort, but as soon as we found that elsewhere, the Church was confronted with a fourth experience of irrelevance or uselessness. At the time, we thought that the Church was still useful because it promoted noble human values. But do we really need the Church to ensure the development of human values when others are now responsible for that? We believed that we could get away with thinking that, at least, the Church could guarantee charity, social solidarity and assistance at the time of the state’s disengagement, but other NPOs are equipped to respond to those needs: thus, we have another example of uselessness. Recently, it has been said that all these forms of social utility are a thing of the past. I have come to believe that this search for relevance leads us to a dead end and, in my opinion, fails to address the essential issue.
So, does the Church today offer instead a sense of community?
There is a lot of spiritual comfort-seeking going on right now, especially in this time of pandemic. If we can’t afford therapy, we can have a beer or go to Mass. But this spiritual comfort is probably not the most valuable thing we have to offer.
So what can the Church offer? I will start with an analogy, which obviously has its limits. Have you seen the film Of Gods and Men? It is about Trappist monks who lived in Algeria, where Sunni Islam is the state religion. The monks could not explicitly proclaim the Gospel because it was forbidden, and therefore, they could not hope for conversion, which was also forbidden. Why then did they stay there? They had to ask themselves this radical question, and we in Quebec can ask ourselves the same question.
Why are there Jesuits in Quebec? It is not against the law to become a Christian. The answer given by the monks in Algeria is that they were there to offer a sign of reconciliation and to be a sign that living together is possible. In the midst of this population, they offered a sign of social friendship and a sign that it is possible to build a world where encounters can happen. They also showed that worshipping God is a priority. That’s all they did! They offered something in the midst of society, something that was offered to all. And the people who were there took what they wanted. For example, I don’t go to Mass simply for my own sake. It is not because it brings me something personally. It’s a sign to society that adoration of God and sharing fraternal life — through Communion in the same bread — is a priority.
Frédéric Barriault, of the Centre justice et foi, recently proposed that the Church should rediscover the prophetic legacy of Catholic social activists engaged in labour, feminist, ecological and decolonial struggles. Is this, in your opinion, a way forward for Catholicism in Quebec?
Is it simply a matter of talking about ecology, social justice, etc., or should we propose to do something? That is why I said earlier that we must show that there is an alternative, in other words, be a sign of the kingdom that is to come. We are summoned and called, as individuals and as the human community, to something other than what is simply offered to us by society, culture and the economy. It’s possible to live in a way that’s human, in a way that’s different from what is presented to us by all the latest trends and advertising. And this human way of life is revealed in the life of the Church. It would be really unfortunate if we were only to talk about it. We must be a sign, especially in terms of ecology and justice issues. In the midst of our society, we must be able to show that the Gospel calls us to another way of living.
In a sense, we must seek to create bridges between the Catholic Church and modernity. However, we are not simply creating bridges, we are challenging contemporary society. We are not trying to simply catch up with society and follow it: We are dynamic actors who are capable of offering something different to the world. It is not just a matter of talking about it, but of proposing an alternative through our way of life, something that does not simply belong to this society, but that belongs to the Society of Jesus.