Certainly, the damage done to the Catholic Church has been huge. For if some in the Church believed that the Quiet Revolution and Vatican II might somehow magically revitalize the Church, they were sorely mistaken. Sadly, quite the opposite has happened. For rather than bringing about a new reawakening, these two events instead created a series of shocks that caused the implosion of the Church.
Take, for example, attendance at mass – an excellent indicator of the state of engagement by the faithful. Prior to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebec had one of the highest attendance rates in North America – if not the world. Now it has one of the lowest.8 And all of this happened very quickly – as noted by former Bloc Québécois leader, Gilles Duceppe, who stated that, “Before Duplessis died, we’d all go to church and make our sign [of the cross], and a year later we didn’t go to Mass anymore.” Just how rapid and precipitous this decline was is clear from the statistics. In the early 1960s, the percentage of Quebec Catholics who attended mass once a month or more was over 80%. By 2007 weekly attendance had dropped to 15%.10 And the damage continues unabated, as seen by the observation by veteran Vatican watcher, Sandro Magister, who notes that, “Today less than 5 percent of Catholics go to Mass on Sundays. There are few religious marriages, most funerals are civil, and baptisms are increasingly rare.”11
But it’s not just the drop in the attendance that is a problem. Rather it’s also the damage done to the Church itself, its personnel and its infrastructure – with churches closing and the ranks of its priests being thinned by death (many are now elderly), the desire to build a new life in the secular world, and a reluctance by young men to enter the priesthood. A good example is the Archdiocese of Quebec (the area around Quebec City) which saw the number of priests drop from 1565 (453 Catholics per priest) in 1966 to 634 (1676 Catholics per priest) in 2014 with the number of parishes falling from 275 in 1966 to 207 in 2014.12 Similar declines have been seen in every part of the Province.
These declines in the number of churchgoers and priests have created huge problems for the Church – not the least of which what to do with those buildings and properties that are no longer needed and how to pay for the maintenance required for those that are retained. Responding to this challenge, the Church has tried various approaches – including closing churches and parishes, finding alternate uses for church buildings and seeking the assistance of the State by having churches declared historic sites. Sadly, this trend continues today – as seen by the fact that between 2003 and 2014, some 400 churches, mostly Catholic, closed in Quebec. And many are being considered for new uses such as health clubs or cultural centers.
For generations, parishioners whispered their sins in the dark wooden confessional booths of Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours, an imposing Roman Catholic church in Montreal.
But on a recent day, the edgy Quebec comedian Sugar Sammy was being filmed inside one of the booths, the latest intimate celebrity confessional on the talk show “Y’a du monde à messe,” or “The Church Is Packed.”
“I made a sex tape in order to be famous, because I thought it was the path to glory,” Sammy said with mock seriousness, as the camera zoomed in on his face, seen from behind a grill. “It didn’t work because no one watched it,” he continued. “I was the only person on the tape.”
A large audience gathered in the church roared with laughter.
The once-hallowed space, now illuminated with a giant pink chandelier, has been reinvented as the Théâtre Paradoxe at a cost of nearly $3 million in renovations. It is now host to, among other events, Led Zeppelin cover bands, Zumba lessons and fetish parties, as well as the talk show that Sammy appeared on.
And it is one of dozens of churches across Quebec that have been transformed — into university reading rooms, luxury condominiums, cheese emporiums and upmarket fitness centers.
At another event at the church, devoted to freewheeling dance, dozens of barefoot amateur dancers filled the space and undulated in a trance-like state in front of its former altar amid drums and chanting. Two men in tank tops clasped hands and twirled each other. A woman in blue juggled three white balls, putting one on her head.
Several wooden pews were recast to build a handsome bar for alcohol-fueled banquets. The former sacristy where priests prepared for Communion is now a dressing room fit for a diva.
While the church has welcomed a “Crucifix Halloween” party featuring barely dressed, leather-clad dancers gyrating in front of a lit-up cross, its director, Gérald St-Georges, a Roman Catholic, stressed that its main function was still sacred rather than profane. It teaches former addicts, juvenile delinquents and high-school dropouts technical theater skills so that they can enter the job market.
“I don’t feel any taboo in transforming a church into a theater, as we are remaining true to the church’s mission of serving the community,” Mr. St-Georges said.
Olivier Pratte, 31, an advertising copywriter who works out at the gym, noted that while his grandmother was religious, his parents’ and his generation were not.
“My grandmother is happy I spend time in a church,” he said, “even if I’m working my biceps and not my soul.”
Pathetic. Read the whole thing.
(By the way, Protestantism in Quebec — always a small thing in the French province — is in full collapse too.)
The reasons for Quebec’s about-face from being one of the most religiously observant societies in the West to being one of the most secular are complex. The point is, it happened, and it happened there virtually overnight. I am sure lots of Christians in what would become the Final Catholic Generation in Quebec looked around at all the churches, and told themselves that things couldn’t get that bad, because hey, see all these beautiful churches!
Note well that there was no persecution in Canada. The Catholic Church there collapsed from within. Quebec is at the leading edge of the decline of Christianity in Canada, but the phenomenon is general.
American Christians, don’t think it can’t happen here. It can, and it will, if we don’t recognize how radical the situation is, and act on those facts. Here are my suggestions for how to face the crisis. I welcome yours. We need all hands on deck. This is not a drill. What’s happened to Quebec is a vivid illustration of what I mean when I say that Jesus Christ was right that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His church, but that does not mean that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it in particular places.
UPDATE: A French reader e-mails:
The main reason why Catholicism collapsed so swiftly in Québec is that it wasn’t real faith but a socially enforced institution – people identified as Catholics and went to the Mass because they felt or were made to feel that they had to, not because they really believed. Once the social pressure to do so was gone, so was Catholicism. I wouldn’t regard it as too much of a loss if, as your article shows, the Québec people had not replaced their traditional religion with the worst aspects of post-modern paganism, including a crude anticlericalism worthy and inherited of their French “cousins” – and of course liberal Catholics can always be trusted to say everything’s fine and cheer on the rubbishing of their own church!
What is true about Québec is too about most of the Western world, and that’s why secularization has been so widespread and successful. Religion, true religion that is, is an elite thing. The vast majority of our congeners don’t care about metaphysics, being healthy and wealthy and having tons of sex (or “love” as they hypocritically put it) is enough to give their lives a “meaning”. Only a strict social enforcement made them appear to be religious and I’d say them going is good riddance. The only problem is that they’re not willing to leave us alone. Being despised and oppressed is one thing, being despised and oppressed by people you despise yourself is another thing entirely, to which truly religious people in the West will have to grow accustomed in years to come. Hey, that’s what we French Catholics have had to put up with for two centuries!