Catholics divided on Quebec values charter

The public hearings being held around Bill 60 — also known as Quebec’s Charter of Values — started last month in Montreal. With 250 briefs — or requests to appear in person — to wade through, it’s likely the hearings will drag on through April.

Essentially, the bill proposes a ban on all religious symbols worn by government employees in the province of Quebec. It not only affects a majority of Quebecers — the government is the province’s largest employer — but also it effectively overrules Canada’s federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

On the surface, Bill 60 appears to be an act of discrimination aimed at Muslims and so unconstitutional it’s believed to be unable to stand up to a court challenge. Even so, the Parti Quebecois (PQ), Quebec’s governing party, hasn’t changed its position since first announcing the bill last September.

The bill has made for strange bedfellows. Opponents include the Catholic Church and original hard-line separatists — the old guard PQ leaders who have called the charter a bad move. One has even said it is the “politics of demagogy,” reported Peter Stockland, editor of the Montreal-based Catholic journal Convivium.

Church position

In a statement made last September, Montreal’s Archbishop Christian Lépine said the issue wasn’t so much about whether the values were good or not, but enshrining them in a charter. Separation of church and state — the neutrality of religion within the state — he said, “should not mean forbidding religious expression in the public square. ... (T)he state promoting a system of values of belief ... diminishes the aims of a charter to protect rights, rights we have as human beings.”

Fournier
Msgr. Fournier

“If you are going to be free to have your belief system and your value system, you are going to be called on to respect others’ value system,” he added. “Behind that is a call to trust other human beings, to trust the human heart, and to trust in the possibility to live in a society with different belief systems and different value systems.”

Surprisingly to many observers, francophone Catholics living in Quebec’s more rural areas are supporting the bill, in spite of their bishops being openly opposed. Why these Catholics would support this bill that would ban all but a few small religious symbols, including crosses, from hospitals, schools, day cares and government offices, has much to do with culture, said McGill University history professor John Zucchi, who is also the Canadian coordinator of the international Catholic movement Communion and Liberation.

Rural Quebec, which is where most of the charter — and PQ — support comes from, is engaged in a cultural tussle with Montreal, a diverse, multiethnic and anglophone city. The more Montreal opposes the bill, the more rural Quebec will support it.

“I think this comes from an ideological place, a fear of society changing,” Zucchi said. “It’s no longer the old familiar Catholic society, and they believe if they take a position to stem any overt presence of these new religious groups, then they’ll help keep the presence of Catholicism in the province.”

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth, Zucchi added. While the bill upholds some Christian symbols — for example, the cross can stay in some government offices — it has reduced these to merely cultural and historical symbols.

Zucchi agrees with Archbishop Lépine’s assessment that the bill represents the culmination of an attack on the Church that started with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. “The government is deciding what value the Church has — historical and cultural only — which puts a nail in the coffin of Christianity as something positive for Quebec society,” he said.

Political control

Moreover, the charter puts the state in a position as champion for Quebec identity and nationalism, while strengthening its capacity to hold sway over the Church. Zucchi is bothered that Quebecers — especially Catholics — are placing “blind trust” in the state, “that it will somehow protect their nation and culture … and bolster the Quebecois identity and culture.”

The sad part, he said, “is how the state does not take into account the significance of society, and that its role is to serve society, not vice versa. Society is something that organically grows. And diversity in society isn’t an ideology but a fact.”

This kind of organic growth would end — to deleterious effect — in a society that codifies homogeneity over personhood. As the head of the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops (AQCB), Msgr. Pierre-Andre Fournier, put it in a news conference last fall, “The more you try to have an identity by pushing back others, the more you create ghettos.”

Quebecers, though, are more worried about allowing a diverse cultural picture to take place. Birthrates are very low — a direct result of the rejection of the Catholic faith and its moral guidelines — and so few descendants exist from the original settlers. Meanwhile, new immigrants are having large families and prefer learning English instead of French. It all makes the loss of French cultural identity a very real threat.

The role of faith

The reaction to the charter, Stockland said, “is about people who dismiss their own faith out of the public square, turned it into a kind of cultural relationship, but had no attachment to the Faith, except a hostile one. And now they see people who take their faith very seriously, intelligent people who work in public service and teaching. The reaction is hostility and anger and incomprehension — and I think a measure of guilt — that if you manifest your religion in an outward way, then we will have to deal with you.”

There has been talk about a compromise position on the bill — allowing religious dress in some circumstances but not in others. In Stockland’s opinion, the only possible compromise would be not allowing those working in a criminal law capacity — judges, police, prison guards — to cover their faces.

A distraction

Meanwhile, the charter and its debate serve a political purpose. All attention it garners draws attention away from the political scandals that plague the PQ — overspending and an inquiry into corruption on construction deals — as well as the euthanasia bill which previously had been front and center.

As for likely outcomes, Stockland said “the informed speculation is that while the PQ won’t listen to the opponents, they actually don’t want this legislation to pass. They just want to campaign on it — a couple elections ago those who exploited the issue got a bump in support.”

Zucchi agrees with Stockland that the charter issue will increase PQ support. If the charter does pass, the federal government will step in, adding fuel to the Quebec fire and making the separatists a shoe-in for the upcoming election, Zucchi points out.

Stockland believes — and hopes — the issue will die down after the election. “If I’m wrong, though, we could be in for real trouble,” he said. “The Jewish General hospital is already saying they won’t comply, that they will just defy them. So if this comes to pass, there will be civil disobedience, and it will get ugly, because we’ve had it in the past.”

Alex Newman writes from Toronto.