Most Americans have immigrant roots. I’m no exception. While my mother’s family was Native American (Prairie Band Potawatomi), my father’s heritage was French Canadian. Growing up in the 1950s, I was very aware that French-speaking Canada – Quebec – was among the most deeply Catholic regions in the world. For more than 200 years, the Church in Quebec not only preached the Gospel, educated the young and ministered to the poor and infirm, but also sustained French language and culture in the face of Canada’s English-speaking Protestant majority.
Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” destroyed all that in just a few decades. Starting in the mid-20th century and speeding up quickly after Vatican II, Quebeckers left the Church in droves. Today barely 5 percent of Quebeckers attend Mass regularly. The Church is often seen as an object of scorn. How did it happen? There’s no single reason. Church leaders brought some of the trouble on themselves through overconfidence, inertia and an inability to see the changing terrain of their people. Consumerism colonized the lay faithful. And the culture became dominated by new and highly secularized leaders in politics, education and mass media.
Quebec’s ruling party – the Parti Quebecois (PQ) – is now pressing for a “Charter of Quebec Values.” The charter seeks to solidify Quebec as a secularist state and, among other things, ban government employees from wearing religious dress and symbols in the name of social unity. Quebec’s bishops have voiced concern about the charter’s impact on religious freedom – not just for minorities like Muslims and Sikhs, but for Catholics as well. More broadly, critics have attacked the PQ for using liberal democracy and religious neutrality as alibis for hostility to any vigorous religious role in the public square. In the words of one Canadian political observer, “Quebec, for the purposes of its own ruling elites, has renounced its past.”
Of course, America has a very different history from Canada and especially from Quebec. Even in Quebec, support for the proposed charter has declined in recent weeks as criticism has grown. Religious freedom is embedded deeply in the U.S. Constitution. So why should any of this matter to American Catholics?
It matters because the impulse to muzzle religious faith as a public force, to confine religious witness to churches and private homes, to bully faith-related ministries into shedding their religious principles in order to do their public work, is now just as real in the United States as it is in Europe and Quebec. It merely takes different forms.
The lessons we can learn from events like those in Quebec are two.
Here’s the first lesson: Our faith needs to be more than a nostalgic habit; more than a sentimental exercise in good will; and the Church needs to be more than a religious institution. Christianity, as C.S. Lewis once famously wrote, is a “fighting religion” – not in the sense of belligerence or ill will, but as a struggle against our own sins and complacency; a struggle to give ourselves wholly to Jesus Christ, and then bring Jesus Christ to the world.
As individuals and as a Church, if we don’t have a restlessness for God, a passion for Jesus Christ and the poor and needy he loves, then we should stop telling ourselves that we’re Christians. A religion of words and habit, a religion without daily inner repentance and commitment, hollows out from the inside. And it can evaporate overnight.
Here’s the second lesson. If we don’t live our Catholic faith and defend our religious liberty vigorously, then sooner or later we’ll lose both. For more than a year, America’s bishops have repeatedly stressed the coercive – even vindictive – nature of the current administration’s HHS contraceptive mandate. No one “needs” this mandate as a matter of health. It’s purely an imposition of ideology on the freedom of religious communities and individuals to live their convictions in their public work. If Catholics fail to resist this coercion, then more coercion will follow. It’s that simple.
No one grasps the nature of this issue better than New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and we should consider his words in closing this week’s column:
“The Catholic Church in America has long been a leader in providing affordable health care, and in advocating for policies that advance that goal. The bishops on a national level have been at it for almost one hundred years, and our heroic women and men religious have done so even longer. Yet, instead of spending our time, energy, and treasure on increasing access to health care, as we have done for many decades, we’re now forced to spend those resources on determining how to respond to recently enacted government regulations that restrict and burden our religious freedom. Catholics – our parents and grandparents, religious sisters, brothers and priests – were among the first at the table to advance and provide health care, and now we are being burdened because of the same Catholic values that compel us into these ministries! All this in a country that puts religious liberty first on the list of its most cherished freedoms. As I’ve said before, this is a fight that we didn’t ask for, and would rather not be in, but it’s certainly one that we won’t run from.”
Readers are encouraged to voice their support for religious liberty at the website of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, https://www.votervoice.net/PACC/Campaigns/30694/Respond.