In Quebec’s COVID Response, the Catholic Church Has Been Completely Marginalized

COMMENTARY: In Canada, civil authorities and the Church have collaborated, negotiated and even litigated over pandemic protocols. Yet in the province of Quebec, the Church was being ignored.

Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec speaks at a press briefing on the synod at the Holy See press office, Oct. 9, 2018.
Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec speaks at a press briefing on the synod at the Holy See press office, Oct. 9, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / CNA)

Catholics have protested during the pandemic the classification of religious gatherings as “not essential.” But what if religious practice was not taken into consideration at all? That was the complaint this past summer by Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec on the situation in his own province.

“Please, let us breathe! Over the past four months, we have solidly proven our good faith and our willingness to collaborate entirely with the authorities. Do not abuse our patience, and stop ignoring our existence and our sense of responsibility,” Cardinal Lacroix said at the prominent shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, on the July 26 Feast of St. Anne, the patron saint of Quebec.

 “Millions of believers from the different faith communities in the province of Quebec feel betrayed, ignored, by the authorities. There are very many believers in the province, not just those who go to church or synagogue or mosque every week,” Lacroix explained.

It is unlikely that “millions” are aggrieved, otherwise the government would have attended to their concerns. It is more the case that the government considers religion entirely superfluous, and most Quebeckers are indifferent.

The cardinal objected strenuously to the fact that the Church’s objections were not taken into account at all.

“While throughout the pandemic the sale of alcohol and cannabis was considered an essential service, faith communities, which undoubtedly we consider capable of offering an essential service to the community, were virtually ignored,” he said. “Even casinos have been granted, before us, the right to accommodate 250 people in areas much smaller than our churches.”

In many other places, civil authorities and the Church have collaborated, negotiated and even litigated over pandemic protocols. Yet in Quebec, Cardinal Lacroix bemoaned that the Church was entirely being ignored. Requests to meet were not granted. The Church had to get its information from watching news conferences and depending upon the questions of journalists.

Anne Leahy, Canada’s former ambassador to the Holy See, noted that Quebec’s bishops had submitted a “comprehensive” plan for reopening and “the the government had no justifiable motive to ignore them.”

Leahy found remarkable the need for Cardinal Lacroix to protest publicly, given that he is “the most conciliatory of prelates.” Leahy is right. From a historic point of view, that the Church would not even merit consultation by the government in Quebec is truly remarkable.

Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was a wily strategist who served 22 intermittent years in office during the tumultuous years 1921-1948. It was said of him — if apocryphally, then precisely to make the point — that he never took an important decision without first calling the president of the Royal Bank in Toronto and the archbishop of Montreal. Today, even the junior clerks in the public health department don’t return the calls of the cardinal archbishop of Quebec.

It was telling that Cardinal Lacroix’s passionate intervention, while noted in the Catholic media, garnered little attention in the public debate, confirming the reason that the government had been, in his words, “ignoring” Catholics.

The collapse of the Church in Quebec, once the most Catholic place on earth according to sociological measures, is not news. Already in his 1984 interview book, The Ratzinger Report, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offered Quebec as the most devastating example of the widespread abandonment of the faith in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the subsequent three decades, the news of the shrinking Quebec Church has ceased to be news. Just this year the historic Grand Seminaire of Montreal, built in the late 19th century for some 200 seminarians, abandoned its building after years of dwindling enrolment.

Cardinal Lacroix’s lament might have been the most dramatic of the summer, but his concerns about the Church at the margins are not unique.

In the early days of the pandemic, Catholics comforted themselves with the inspiring tales of the drive-thru confessionals, parishioners staging spontaneous automotive processions, compassionate souls seeing to the delivery of food and medicine to the vulnerable.

There was eagerness to get churches back open and an enormous amount of energy spent on doing so in accord with various public health protocols. Now the focus has shifted and the news is largely bleak. What if the churches open and people don’t return?

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles fears that people may have devalued the importance of worship. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, says many simply will Catholics will not return to parish life. Every week brings news of permanent closures.

Cardinal Lacroix’s complaint was about civil authorities neglecting religious faith and practice. The emerging concern, far beyond Quebec, is whether citizens in general should also prove indifferent.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.