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Quebec bishops praise autonomy, democracy

NCR Staff

Quebec’s Catholic bishops have declared that the church must treat believers as “active subjects” rather than passive objects of authority, must foster church structures that “favor relationships based on equality and brotherhood/sisterhood,” and must adopt reforms in light of modern democratic principles.

The statements came in a 1999 French-language document from the bishops, “Proclaiming the Gospel in the Actual Culture of Quebec.” Portions of that 101-page text have been translated into English in the Winter 2000 issue of the Canadian journal The Ecumenist.

The document builds upon a reputation for moderate-to-progressive views within the Quebec episcopacy, which has its own bishops’ conference.

Church watchers may find the document interesting as a hint of the views of Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte of Montreal, a member of the Quebec conference and papabile, a man often rumored to be a candidate to become the next pope. Sources in Quebec say that Turcotte was not involved in producing the document, but he did support it.

“It is not sufficient to insist that the church is not a democracy, even if that statement is correct,” the bishops said. Being Catholic “in a democratic society leads to a new relation to authority and a different manner of proclaiming the gospel. What is required is a certain degree of participation and a careful listening to all the voices that want to be heard. Nothing can be imposed simply by authority; there is no single word.”

The document notes that one hallmark of modern culture is respect for personal freedom. “Persons demand more autonomy, insist on being consulted and heard, and claim a right to participate and decide. … People bristle at the mention of regimentation and all efforts to indoctrinate are greeted with repugnance.”

“This demand for autonomy should not be underestimated; it deserves recognition,” the bishops said. “This is a new reality, which is far from negative for the church.”

Most fundamentally, the bishops said that for missionary efforts in modern culture to succeed, the church has to learn as well as to teach.

“Today it has become obvious that the only communication which has a chance to succeed is communication which affirms the activity of both subjects as they explore and converse.”

Bishop Roger Ébacher of the Gatineau-Hull diocese, one of two bishops who served as lead authors of the document, said that modern culture’s democratic ethos can help the church recover forgotten aspects of its own tradition.

“We must rediscover the truth that the church is the people of God, it’s the community,” he said in a telephone interview with NCR. Ébacher noted that synods, collegiality and subsidiarity were Catholic ideas that helped form the basis for modern democracy.

Ébacher said the bishops recognized that their document strikes a somewhat different note on questions of culture and truth than John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, which -- despite an unexpectedly positive tone on some currents in modern thought -- renewed objections to relativism and secularization.

“This is a pastoral text,” Ébacher said. “We didn’t try to work out the theology, we’re concerned with trying to present the gospel here so our people can recognize the good news.”

He said the bishops have received “no reaction at all” from the Vatican.

This is not the first time the church in Quebec has struck a more progressive note than Rome. In 1986, the Quebec bishops adopted a resolution vowing to “remain open” on the question of women’s ordination. In John Paul’s 1994 letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis the pope declared the subject closed.

In a November 1998 synod of Turcotte’s Montreal archdiocese, delegates adopted resolutions supporting the ordination of women as priests and deacons and calling for married priests, a greater lay role in decision-making and a new approach to divorce.

Gregory Baum of Montreal’s McGill University, who has written extensively on the Catholic church in Quebec, told NCR that the progressive stance of the bishops came out of the “Quiet Revolution” in the province in the 1960s, when the church was severed from the state and its once-massive social influence dissolved in a space of a few short years.

“The bishops here had a very bad experience with authority,” Baum said. “They now realize that condemning, trying to impose something by force, is a very bad idea.”

Baum said he is aware that some conservative Catholics in the United States such as Fr. John Richard Neuhaus have criticized the Canadian bishops, especially those in Quebec, for their progressive views, suggesting that they are afraid of “offending” the dominant culture.

“To us, it seems these critics are the ones who have been secularized,” Baum said. “For the most part, they are so identified with private property and capitalism, so uncritical of the dominant economic system and of American power in the world. They are the ones who have sold out to the Western Empire.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000