The Quiet Revolution and the Church

A Cultural Schism with Intra-Catholic Origins

Jeffrey Metcalfe

“According to a study of textbooks published by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1970, we learned a version of Canadian history which presented English-speaking Canadians as superior in almost every way to the French. […] More recent studies have concluded that things haven’t changed much in the twenty five years since the Royal Commission.”[1]

“N’est pas une province comme les autres.”[2]

As Daniel Francis argues in his book National Dreams: Myth, Memory, And Canadian History, the historical narrative that governs the social imagination of Canada is sharply divided between the cultural linguistic groups of the French and the English. This divide, Francis points out, is well illustrated in the English Canadian history curriculum, which too often depicts French Canadian society as traditionally Catholic, “feudal, authoritarian, and priest ridden;”[3] contrasting to the English who were protestant “rational, progressive, and freedom loving.”[4]

In my own experience, growing up in a small protestant town in South Western Ontario, this narrative was perhaps best displayed in our school’s account of the Quiet Revolution. The Quiet Revolution, we were taught, was that pivotal moment in Canadian history when the people of Quebec finally broke with their past traditions, cast down the corrupt and oppressive Catholic Church, and secularized its social, economic, and political institutions, joining the rest of Canada as a modern province. Such a narrative, by presuming the Quiet Revolution was a simplistic break with Quebec’s Catholic past that enabled it to pursue a national teleology indistinguishable from that of the other provinces, is a clear perpetuation of the English Canadian infantilization of Quebec.

In what follows, I shall argue that the Quiet Revolution did arise from – and is representative of – a cultural schism, but one that is intra-Catholic in its origins. Indeed, as Gregory Baum has demonstrated, the Quiet Revolution was not antagonistic to the Catholic Church, and was in many cases supported by its members including prominent laity, religious communities, clergy, and bishops. Following the secularization theory of David Martin, Baum posits that it was the unique socio-cultural situation of Quebec influenced by the reforming spirit of post-Vatican II Catholicism that enabled a wide social effort of reform. However, while Baum’s analysis helpfully points out the role of the Catholic Church in the Quiet Revolution, it does so in a way that glosses over the crucial yet ambivalent role left Catholics played in the revolution’s origins. Amending Baum’s analysis with the historical account of ­­­Michael Gauvreau, I shall show how the Quiet Revolution originated in a cultural schism initiated by left Catholics through Catholic Action, and its subsequent influence.

Baum sets the stage for his analysis with a historical review of the Catholic Church’s complicity with the British Empire. Shortly after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, in which France ceded control of New France to the British, the bishops of the Catholic Church made a deal with the British governors. “The crown was willing to guarantee the rights of the Catholic Church if the bishops were ready to pacify the population.”[5] This arrangement functioned effectively for several years until the failed rebellion of 1837. Yet, “in the 1840s, thanks to a new, ultramontane Catholicism – aggressive, disciplined and other-wordly, promoted by a large number of priests and religious coming from France – the Catholic Church was able to affirm itself as the spiritual and cultural force that defined, with ever increasing intensity, the social reality of French Canada.”[6] It is this ultramontane Catholicism that most English Canadians – and their high school history curriculums – refer to when they describe traditional Quebec as being governed by an oppressive church.

However, ultramontane Catholicism cannot be seen as a univocally negative movement in Quebec, nor should it be mistaken as the totality of Catholic expression throughout the province’s history. As Baum notes, “this Catholicism was the religious cement that enabled French Canadians to resist assimilation and decline.”[7] Indeed, it was precisely the assertive, disciplined, and conservative character of ultramontane Catholicism that helped to maintain a cohesive and commonly shared French Canadian cultural identity in the face of a determined effort by successive English governments to anglicize the population. Thus, on the one hand, while the bishops of the Catholic Church were complicit in pacifying the French population in relation to English political and economic domination, it was this very complicity that gave the Catholic Church the ability to solidify and defend French Canadian social and cultural life.

That being said, it is important to point out that ultramontane Catholicism was a movement circumscribed temporally and socially and is not representative of the totality of the Catholic Church’s presence in Quebec. This is a reality well illustrated in the Quiet Revolution, which as Baum points out, was not only largely unopposed by the Catholic Church, but in several instances actively supported by the Catholic laity, religious communities, clergy, and bishops. Indeed, in the Fifties it was young Catholic intellectuals such as Gérard Pelletier, Pierre Vallières, René Lévesque, and Pierre Trudeau who writing together in the journal Cité Libre, presented an opposition to the conservative policies of Maurice Duplessis.[8]

Baum argues that this movement toward social reform in Quebec was strengthened in the Sixties by the Second Vatican Council, where church leaders such as Cardinal Léger, Archbishop of Montreal, decisively “turned away from the triumphalism of the past, recognized that the Church must seek a new place in a pluralist society, advocated the critical adaptation of Catholicism to the needs of contemporary men and women, and came to believe “service” was the word best able to express the Church’s mission in the modern world.”[9] Shortly after the opening of Vatican II, the Dominican Order started Maintenant, a Quebec based journal that “favoured pluralism; it did not lament the curbing of ecclesiastical power; it approved of the challenge to the Catholic monopoly; it gave expression to what it regarded as the new Catholicism defined by Vatican II.”[10] It included articles written by Catholic academics such as the sociologists Guy Rocher and Fernand Dumont, whose work was influential in the social reconstruction that took place during the Quiet Revolution. Thus, while church leaders in the hierarchy were engaged in social reform at the top (the theological renewal of Vatican II and negotiating the removal of church authority over the educational and health care systems with the government), both the laity, clergy, and religious orders were involved in much of the on-the-ground work of social reconstruction.

Borrowing from David Martin’s theory of modernization in which he posits that “religion affects the manner in which a traditional society moves into modernization,”[11] Baum credits the relative peacefulness of the Quiet Revolution to the role Catholicism has historically played in Quebec. In most modernizing Catholic countries, such as Italy and France, “the Church identified itself with the conservative forces that resisted modernization; as a result the whole society became divided into two camps, Catholics on the one hand and liberals on the other.”[12] This created a cultural schism that often ended in violence.

However, as we have seen, the Catholic Church in Quebec did not overly align itself with conservative social forces. Seeing itself as the defender of French Canadian society and culture, the church worked with secularizing movements in an effort to reform the social institutions that were holding French Canadians in a state of political and economic subservience to English Canada.[13] Thus, “the first years of the Quiet Revolution saw two movements, one secular-political and the other religious, cooperate and for many people fuse into a single thrust.”[14] In fact, these two groups were so bound together that “at one time, the cabinet of Premier René Lévesque included two ecclesiastics, a well-known priest scholar who had resigned from the ministry and a former Jesuit priest who had become a secular priest in order to be able to enter politics.”[15] Baum concludes by positing this as evidence that the Catholic Church helped Quebec avoid a cultural schism during the Quiet Revolution, providing a unique example of how the church can positively impact the social, economic, and political fate of a nation.

While Baum’s analysis helpfully points out the role of the Catholic Church in the Quiet Revolution, it does so in a way that glosses over the crucial yet ambivalent part the left Catholics played in the revolution’s origins. Michael Gauvreau’s more recent book, The Catholic Origins of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, 1931-1970, presents a much more nuanced and equivocal account of the Catholic Church’s participation in the Quiet Revolution. Like Baum, Gauvreau writes about secularization in Quebec, in part, to refute what Charles Taylor has called the “subtraction theory of secularization,”[16] in which religion is seen as a positive superstructure that is peeled back to reveal a secular foundation. Gauvreau believes that such accounts, because they give primacy to political analysis over religious analysis, are unable to fully grasp the way in which the political situation in the Quiet Revolution was inseparably bound up with religion. However, unlike Baum, Gauvreau’s analysis suggests that the Quiet Revolution should be characterized not as a smooth and positive transition guided by a progressive Catholic Church, but in fact, one that should be characterized as an intra-Catholic cultural schism initiated by left Catholics.

Gauvreau traces this schism to its origins in the 1930’s, when the Catholic Church in Quebec, in an attempt to pre-emptively prevent Marxist, fascist, and English North American consumerist ideology from indoctrinating the youth, started Catholic Action: a lay Catholic youth movement informed by Catholic Social teaching. Originally a European movement, Catholic Action offered an alternative to Marxist reform movements popular with youth by fostering “a more ‘democratic’ religious style,”[17] oriented towards addressing the disparity and familial disintegration common to urbanizing depression era societies. To this end, Catholic Action “spawned movements that were activist, inclusive, and oriented to the demands of working-class people and women, seeking in particular to reform what were seen as deficiencies in family relationships by emphasising a more egalitarian status for youth and women.”[18]

However, as Baum’s analysis has already made clear, the political and religious situation of Europe cannot be mapped onto Quebec. Unlike Belgium, Italy and France, the influence of Marxism, facism, and English North American consumerism in Quebec was relatively small in comparison to the all-permeating presence of the Catholic Church. Thus, whereas in European Catholic countries, Catholic Action set itself up in opposition to ideological movements outside of Catholicism, the lack of such strong movements caused Catholic Action in Quebec to focus its work on reforming Catholicism and Quebec society as a whole, setting the ground for the emergence of left Catholics in the province.

Baum describes this orientation toward reform in glowing terms. However as Gauvreau’s analysis makes clear, the motivating assumptions behind it were far from benign. Indeed, Catholic Action defined “itself as a ‘rupture’ with the prevailing models and practices of Quebec Catholicism […] in which spiritual priorities were radically shifted from the individual to an imperative to transform the collective mentality of whole communities.”[19] While this imperative toward egalitarian transformation may have been a positive development, it was accomplished by “bypass[ing] the vertical solidarity of the parish that had bound generations of Catholics together, and did so through a virulent critique of the elder generation as spiritually and morally derelict.”[20]  By thus defining itself in complete opposition to the older generation, dismissing the parish system, and their elder’s piety and sincerity of faith, Catholic Action caused a cultural schism whose fault lines ran generationally.

As the youth formed by Catholic Action in the Thirties matured, and moved into more prominent positions within the government, academia, the media, and the church, this generational divide only worsened. What began as personal assumptions of spiritual superiority nurtured by Catholic Action, began to be reflected in wider cultural conversations in journals such as Cité Libre and Maintenant, as well asin public policy. Often, it employed a rhetoric that depicted traditional Catholicism as too conformist, ritualistic, and “too tailored to female forms of piety to appeal to an educated male leadership.”[21] Perhaps one of the most profound ironies of this history is that the majority of women and working people in Quebec – the original target demographic of Catholic Action – were in fact adherents to the more traditional Catholicism. Yet, it was the much more vocal group of middle and upper class intellectuals who held an “ambitious liberal political agenda,” [22] that ultimately forced the social activist lay Catholicism into the background. This group, which included Trudeau and Pelletier, “instead turned the language of Catholic Action into an aggressive, male-centred spiritual elitism that was profoundly contemptuous of popular religious practice in Quebec.”

As Gauvreau notes, eventually “the act of labelling large numbers of ordinary Catholics as non-Christian effectively countenanced, in the name of a purer, more socially-oriented religion, the permanent alienation of large segments of francophone Quebecers from Church institutions.”[23] As the new social elite, many of whom had been formed in Catholic Action youth organizations, condemned the popular piety and ecclesial understandings of traditional Catholicism practiced by the majority of women and working people, the long term result was not a wide spread embrace of left Catholicism, but rather an abandoning of formal commitment to the church and the sublimation of Québécois identity into secular nationalism.

Thus we can see that the Quiet Revolution did arise from – and is representative of – a cultural schism, but one that is intra-Catholic in its origins. As Gregory Baum has shown, the Quiet Revolution was not antagonistic to the Catholic Church, and was in many cases supported by its members including laity, religious communities, clergy, and bishops. Baum, through his invocation of David Martin’s theory of secularization, demonstrated that it was the unique socio-cultural situation of Quebec influenced by the reforming spirit of post-Vatican II Catholicism that enabled a wide effort of social reform. Yet, while Baum’s analysis helpfully pointed out the role of the Catholic Church in the Quiet Revolution, it did so in a way that overlooked the crucial yet ambivalent role left Catholics played in the revolution’s origins. Having amended Baum’s analysis with the historical account of ­­­Michael Gauvreau, we can now see that the Quiet Revolution originated in a cultural schism initiated by left Catholics through Catholic Action, and its subsequent influence.

In conclusion, I would like to draw attention to three important points that arise from the brief account of the Quiet Revolution I have offered here. The first is the need for a vigilant humility. Baum’s account of the Quiet Revolution, I have suggested, depicts the reforming tendencies and groups within the Catholic Church in Quebec as too unequivocally positive. The eternal temptation of the political theologian, especially theologians of the left (in which I count my own number), is to draw the boundaries between people, ideological groups, and the values that we assign them, a little too firmly. As the Quiet Revolution indicates, often, even movements of positive political reform are pursued with mixed motives and achieve ambivalent results.

The same critique should be applied to my own criticism of Baum. When Baum was writing about the Quiet Revolution in the Eighties, no political theologians in the English speaking world were paying much attention to the important events that were taking place in Quebec: most still are not. That Baum’s analysis seems to lack the nuances and impartiality of Gauvreau’s historical account is a retrospective criticism that should not be taken too far. Baum was not simply reflecting upon the events of the Quiet Revolution; as a peritus at the Second Vatican Counsel, a professor at McGill, and a resident of Montreal, he was himself peripherally involved in it. A vigilant humility would also demand his work on the Quiet Revolution, as well as his overall advocacy for French Canadians in English Canada, be recognized for the pioneering work it is.

This brings me to my second point. As both Baum and Gauvreau’s accounts have shown, both in their content, as well as in there own dissimilarity, contrary to the popular assumptions proffered by English Canadian culture, Catholicism in Quebec has always been a diverse religious community that includes a multiplicity of perspectives of which none can be said to characterize the whole. As we have seen, the Quiet Revolution exemplifies Catholic pluralism, as Catholic laity, religious communities, clergy, and bishops of conservative, liberal, and socialist orientations joined the public debate on the future of Quebec. Indeed, to posit the Catholic Church in Quebec as simply reactionary, traditionalist, oppressive, or corrupt, is to perpetuate the infantilizing narratives that have defined English oppression of French Canada.

Finally, the third, and perhaps most obvious insight gained from this analysis is the inextricable link between politics and religion in social analysis. Baum and Gauvreau’s work undeniably show how deeply the social, political, and economic commitments that have governed Quebec – from colonization to the Quiet Revolution – have been bound up in a particular theological envisioning of society. Hence, to fail to adequately take theology into account in one’s social analysis is to do an injustice not only to religion, but to sociology, political science, and history.

Jeffrey Metcalfe is a priest in the Diocese of Quebec. While he completes his theological studies at Trinity College in Toronto, he serves as the assistant curate at the Church of the Redeemer. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

[1] Daniel Francis, National Dreams: Myth, Memory, And Canadian History (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011), 90.

[2] Gregory Baum, “Catholicism and Secularization in Quebec,” Cross Currents 36, no. 4 (December 1, 1986): 436.

[3] Ibid., 94.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 437.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Interestingly, Pierre Vallières later went on to join the FLQ. After spending four years in prison for his involvement in counseling kidnapping and terrorist bombings, he joined a Roman Catholic religious order.

[9] Gregory Baum, “Catholicism and Secularization in Quebec,” 452.

[10] Ibid., 451.

[11] Ibid., 444.

[12] Ibid., 445.

[13] This was especially felt in the education system that was organized and run by the church. It was believed that where English Canadian schools focused upon business and technological skills that enabled their graduates to succeed in the modern economy, the French Canadian schools in Quebec focused more upon religious and cultural teaching, making it difficult for their students to economically compete with English Canadians. See Gregory Baum, “Catholicism and Secularization in Quebec,” 493.

[14] Gregory Baum, “Catholicism and Secularization in Quebec,” 484.

[15] Gregory Baum, “Catholicism and Secularization in Quebec,” 457.

[16] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 26.

[17] Michael Gauvreau, The Catholic Origins of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, 1931-1970 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 13.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 32.

[20] Ibid., 21.

[21] Ibid., 355.

[22] Ibid., 355.

[23] Ibid., 311.


Baum, Gregory. Catholics and Canadian Socialism: Political Thought in the Thirties and Forties. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1980.

__________. “Catholicism and Secularization in Quebec.” Cross Currents 36, no. 4 (December 1, 1986): 436-458.

__________. “How moving to Quebec has affected my theology.” Toronto Journal Of Theology 26, no. 1 (March 1, 2010): 33-45.

__________. “Laïcité in Canada and Quebec.” Ecumenism no. 177 (March 1, 2010): 4-9.

__________. “The Catholic bishops and Quebec nationalism.” Arc 19, (March 1, 1991): 73-86.

Francis, Daniel. National Dreams: Myth, Memory, And Canadian History. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011.

Gauvreau, Michael. The Catholic Origins of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, 1931-1970. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

Grant, John Webster. The Church in the Canadian Era. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1998.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.


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