National and Religious Identities:
Conditions of Conflict or Harmony

by Dr. François-Pierre Gingras
Department of Political Science
University of Ottawa
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

National Identities Conference
University of London, April 1998

Religions are never indifferent to nationalist movements, because both religions and nationalist movements promote norms and values linking individuals to their communities. The thesis of this paper is that, whenever nationalist claims espouse some major ideals of an institutionalized religion and serve clerical interests, these claims tend to be supported by the authorities of this religion, and its clergy tends to join in the leadership. Furthermore, when nationalist claims contradict religious interests, the two sets of leaders find themselves in opposition, and considerable stress is put on those individuals who belong to (and identify with) both the religion and the nation.

This paper will concisely explore the tensions between religious and nationalist identities both at the theoretical level and with a particular reference to different stages in the development of nationalism in French Canada.

A. Nationalist Movements and Religion

A nationalist movement is essentially the mobilization of a certain type of community, called a nation, supporting claims made on behalf of this nation to affirm its political identity. Specific claims naturally vary from one nationalist movement to another, but they are always rooted in some valued characteristics of the community.

Communities and Religion

Many different objective or subjective characteristics may be relevant to the nationalist mobilization: common history, language or religion, specific geographical features such as so-called natural borders, unique educational, economic or political institutions, distinct legal traditions or patterns of artistic expression, the national soul with its popular customs and mores, shared values, moral conventions and beliefs. All these cultural elements define and differentiate human communities, but the perception of their relative importance varies with communities. For the purpose of this paper, the religious component of the national culture will be emphasized.

Religions, religious institutions, and priests have always attempted to define the meaning of life; all communities have been more or less shaped by these definitions and this is manifest in the institutional organization of individual societies, sometimes long after the initial factors have disappeared. The religious element, always crucial in pre-modern societies, is still extremely important in defining and differentiating some communities, but much less so in others. It is possible to conceptualize the relative influence of clerical (i.e. religious) elites in public life as a continuum, with the extremities occupied by two ideal types [1]: clerical communities and secular communities, as shown in Chart 1.
Chart 1 An ideal-typical model of communities based on their clerical or secular characteristics
clerical community
communities are more or less religious
secular community

A clerical community is a community possessing social institutions and structures that have been and are still largely shaped or influenced by a religious elite; members of a clerical community share a set of values, beliefs and attitudes codified by the religious elite and spread by its clergy; in a clerical community, the clergy has special privileges and there is no clear distinction between secular life and religious life. This type of community was characteristic of most so-called primitive societies; it has been advocated by ultramontane Roman Catholics and integrist Muslims.

At the other extreme of the continuum is the secular community, where no religious elites play a determining role in shaping or influencing social institutions and structures, values, beliefs and attitudes; no clergy have special privileges and there is a clear distinction between secular life and religious life: religious beliefs and practices are confined to the private sphere of life. A secular community is not necessarily anti-religious, but it is anti-clerical by definition. While modern constitutions explicitly define many states as secular, religious influence in the public sphere is nevertheless perceivable in many of these societies and their secular character is often more symbolic than instrumental.

Between the two ideal types so defined, there is a wide spectrum of communities where religious values and clerical interests play a more or less important public role in conditioning social institutions and shaping dominant systems of beliefs in society. As all communities are more or less religious, few, if any, are devoid of any form of clerical influence.

In a minority context, religion may act as an extremely powerful differentiator, may play a determining role in the acculturation of children, and may constitute a characteristic that a community most ferociously wants to preserve. Conversely, religion is naturally a privileged target for a foreign ruler or a socially dominant group: world history is filled with religious persecutions, an illustration of the exceptional importance attributed to religion in maintaining social cohesion; indeed, it provides members of a community with a meaning to their earthly life, regardless of the will of the ruler, or of the political or economic dominance of another group. In particular, a minority religion may always be perceived as a potential threat to social order. When religious claims are associated with linguistic and political claims, mobilization may be extremely explosive. This is the case with many nationalist movements.

Nationalist Movements

Thousands of books and articles have been written about the concept of nation and this paper will not review the multitude of definitions of what constitutes a nation in the sociological sense [2]. For the purpose of this paper, a community is defined as a sociological nation when its members develop a common will to promote its objective and subjective uniqueness through some concerted political action, with the aim of maintaining or increasing control over its own political destiny [3]. In this sense, nation is the political counterpart of culture and nationalism implies some form of political mobilization based on the will of the people. All communities do not necessarily become nations and members of communities labelled as nations by social scientists do not always refer to themselves as nations. From this point of view, there have been sociological nations ever since communities have mobilized to control their political future. The effective mobilization of a community often depends upon the existence of an appropriate leadership. The point here is that, to deserve the appellation of nation, a community must display a general will to mobilize in support of claims it considers vital to its political affirmation; it must not be forced into it by a prince or a powerful coterie.

Nationalism as a Social Movement

Within a state, there may be several social movements making claims on behalf of their members or supporters: peace, feminist, gay, human rights, agrarian, environmental, nationalist and other movements co-exist and sometimes compete for support. Nationalist movements give priority to the political expression of the entire community, over and above sectional interests: whatever narrow or comprehensive definition nationalist leaders may give of the entire community, it is the object of allegiance and forms the basis of all nationalist claims. Nationalism provides a moral definition of the relationships between its individual members, the national community and the outside world: it actually gives a meaning to the community itself and to living in the community. Nationalist leaders do not always insist that all members of the nation accord all the time their priority only to the common national interest (as defined by ideologues of the movement) over their own personal or sectional interests, but they require that this priority must be present in times of national mobilization and situations of crisis, such as elections, referendums, mass boycotts or demonstrations, uprisings, wars.

The priority required by nationalist leaders in the claim-making mobilization of their community may lead to direct or indirect confrontation with religious values and clerical interests, if these are perceived not to coincide with the common (i.e. national) good. The likelihood of conflict will depend upon a number of factors, including the basis of operation of a religion and the degree of clerical influence in public life.

Two ideal types of communities have already been defined, with respect to the clerical-secular dimension. It is also possible to conceive two ideal types of religions with respect to their bases of operation. One type is the universal religion that has an all-inclusive scope, aims at the salvation of the entire human race and targets people across community boundaries ; it may have branches in various nations, but a central, supra-national authority ensures uniformity of dogmas and teachings; the Roman Catholic Church is, in principle, a universal religion. The other type is the community, territorially or ethnically based religion, with ecclesiastical structures entirely circumscribed within an identifiable community; this is not to say that territorially-based religions do not want people in other nations to be saved and they may indeed have close ties with other territorially-based religions of a similar creed; the Church of England could be an example of a community-based religion.

These are ideal types of religions. In actual situations, particular religions may fall somewhere between the two types defined here. For instance, some religions may have separate, autonomous national structures in different countries, but may be very similar for everything else, including dogmas, symbols, rites and attitudes toward moral issues. Conversely, a universal religion may have branches in different communities, that have developed very differently in most aspects, including symbols, rites and attitudes toward some controversial moral issues. For the sake of simplicity, arguments in the following sections will be limited to the two ideal types, but the second part of the paper will examine actual, more complex situations.

Community-Based Religions and Support for Nationalist Claims

In a community-based religion that has a broad following, religious leaders must be expected, in principle, to support their community's dominant aspirations and claims, because they belong to a religious institution that was actually established to respond to the spiritual concerns of this particular community. The clergy should not perceive much pressure to oppose a nationalist movement developing in the community, as long as the movement ideology is consistent with values, norms and beliefs widely shared in the community.

Naturally, the moral and material support from the religious leadership should be particularly strong in a clerical community, where the religious structure and culture form the social hub by excellence. In this case, religion is perceived as the guardian of the nation and nationalist demands include religious claims, much like ancient city walls ensured the freedom to worship city gods who, in turn, protected the community against the outside, hostile world. Religious leaders in a clerical community will likely co-operate with nationalist captains and religious institutions may easily become powerful communication channels for a nationalist mobilization, specially if religious elites exert influence in socializations and communication networks, such as schools and the media.

The position of the clergy is much less prominent and the religious elites are much less influential in a secular community, but they are nevertheless an integral part of it and they should also be expected, in principle, to support dominant community aspirations and claims in secular settings. There would be an exception to this rule if the nationalist discourse is overtly anti-religious or so aggressively anti-clerical that it spurns the support of religious personalities [4].

Universal Religions and Opposition to Nationalist Claims

Religious elites belonging to a universal faith are subject to formidable cross-pressures when confronted with nationalist claims, because their allegiance is divided between their global horizon and their local roots.

Their global horizon encourages a solidarity with other communities outside their own nation and discourages support for particularistic claims. The dilemma arises, for instance, when the perceived threat to the nation comes from communities sharing the same faith or, more generally, when the supra-national hierarchy imposes different sorts of constraints over its representatives in the community where nationalist claims are being made. At first sight, in any community, the religious elite of a universal religion might be expected to oppose nationalist claims because these claims are by definition more local than universal. The expansion of early Christianity has indeed contributed to the demise of territory as the primary basis of allegiance and, for many centuries, Christians have identified more with their universal and durable religion than with their local and ephemeral princes.

In secular communities, mainstream nationalist claims would normally consider clerical interests and religious values as belonging to the private sphere. Nationalist ideologues, in secular communities, would address these matters only marginally or even totally disregard them. Given its limited freedom of action, the local ecclesiastical leadership belonging to a universal religion has little to gain from openly lending support to nationalist claims and it is therefore improbable that it will do so. At best, this lack of leverage might imply an absence of hostile public interventions against the nationalist mobilization, but not an absence of interest in the political debate. If nationalist claims are made in the name of so-called radical, liberal, modernizing or revolutionary principles, overt mobilization by the religious elite against a nationalist movement is more likely, because its own, universal view of the world would be at stake. But there may be exceptions to this clerical opposition to nationalist claims, for instance if, in their effort to rally the entire community, nationalist leaders convincingly proclaim the importance of the community's religious heritage, among other highly valued national features; in some cases, there may even be a religious revival in a secular community under siege and it would be then difficult for clerical elites not to sympathize at least passively with the nationalist movement.

In clerical communities where a nationalist movement is active, ecclesiastical elites belonging to a universal religion are under even more intense cross-pressures, because they have so much at stake due their very influence and involvement in public affairs. Should they side with the nationalists and lose, or should they oppose the nationalists and lose, their own status, influence and privileges could well be in jeopardy; in extreme cases, freedom of religion might even be in the balance. But, by definition, they cannot remain silent, because the community looks up to them and expects their guidance. Since it is hardly conceivable that they would be genuinely neutral and withdraw altogether, they may offer to become mediators between us and them, trying to strike some acceptable compromise; they may express sympathy for the universal values embedded in the nationalist discourse (such as human rights, justice, freedom), but condemn so-called extreme claims (such as political independence) or violent forms of expression of the nationalist sentiment (such as rebellion or war). In a clerical community, it is always a prudent strategy for the clergy of a universal religion to adopt a moderate and compromising position, unless it is ready to encourage a deep scission within the community, or is willing to split from the universal religion and form a schismatic church, a community-based persuasion.

The nationalist dilemma is more intense for the ecclesiastical elite than for the local clergy or the lay members of a universal religion. In any institution, the leadership speaks for the organization and has more public exposure than the rank and file; within the structure of a universal religion, the clerical leadership in a community is directly responsible to a central, supra-national authority, that is not only a guardian of the Truth, but has the material power to enforce orthodox behaviour. While the ecclesiastical elite may covertly support nationalist claims, it is easier for the local clergy to bless nationalist activities, and for the laity to actively engage in them. On the other hand, the upper clergy is more likely than the rank and file to associate with other social leaders and engage in what is known as elite accommodation, i.e. networking at the top, and this is true in secular as well as in clerical communities; the tighter knit is the web, the more difficult it is to openly oppose projects that have the widespread support of other community elites.

A special situation arises when there is a clear convergence between nationalist claims, on the one hand, and the religious values and clerical interests of members of a universal religion, on the other, for instance when the nation feels threatened by authorities or neighbours who do not confess the same faith. In this case of a religion locally under siege, overt support from the clerical authorities is likely if they reinterpret the conflict as one between religions instead of one between communities or nations: their role will be that of standard bearer in a crusade against the infidels.

To sum up, the natural tendency for clerical elites of a universal religion is to oppose particularistic claims and the more universal their religious horizon, the more likely their opposition; however, the deeper their local roots are, the less likely their opposition to nationalist manifestations.

Conditions of Conflict or Harmony

When religious values and nationalist goals are not in opposition, clerical elites and nationalist leaders may co-operate to mobilize the population in favour of nationalist objectives. The synergy is even more likely if their respective material and symbolic interests coincide. When religious values and nationalist goals conflict, clerical elites may become agents of social control and oppose the nationalist mobilization in the name of spiritual values higher than the particularistic nationalist endeavours. Based on the two typologies developed above, the expected level of support for nationalism in community-based and universal religions is summarized in Chart 2.
Chart 2
Typical attitudes of clerical elites regarding nationalist claims
In a secular community
In a clerical community
Community-based religion
strong support
Universal religion
moderating influence

Needless to say, as most actual communities fall somewhere on the continuum between the clerical and secular types, the synergy of nationalism and religion depends, in practice, on a multitude of factors, such as the universal or local scope of the religion, the sources of the perceived threats, the nature of the socio-economic strains, the fragmentation of social leadership, the relative autonomy of religious and other institutions (schools, hospitals, media, finance, etc.), the contents of the nationalist beliefs and claims, the factors precipitating the mobilization and the reactions of public authorities through social control. Furthermore. the more isolated a minority community is or feels, the more solidarity is to be expected among its different leaders, even if its religious elites belong to a universal religion.

The clergy's ability to mobilize the faithful for or against nationalist objectives is itself a function of many factors, among them the depth of religious values and the degree of religious zeal among the faithful, the intensity and quality of contacts between the clergy and the believers, the available pool of potential leaders in the larger community and the legitimacy accorded by the population to clerical intervention in political affairs.

The keenness of the clergy in stimulating nationalist mobilization is related to the clergy's agreement with the ideological beliefs put forward by the nationalist leadership with respect to the identification of agents responsible for the national crisis and the appropriate solutions to ensure the national future. This keenness also depends on the clergy's perception of how superficially or fundamentally these claims challenge their own spiritual and worldly interests: priests may be intermediaries between gods and humans, but they are always appreciative of their material conditions and their symbolic positions in the community.

In sum, God may be transcendent, but clerical elites are never indifferent to nationalist claims. On the contrary, they should always be expected to support or oppose nationalist movements rather than remain neutral. When subjected to intense cross-pressures, they will tend to have a moderating influence and promote compromises.

The second part of this paper examines how this model may help to understand the evolving relationship between religious elites and nationalism in a specific community, over more than two centuries.

B. Conflict and Harmony in French-Canadian Nationalism

Any examination of the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward a nationalist movement is enlightening because the Roman Catholic Church is the epitome of universal religion. Let's now briefly study the involvement of Roman Catholic clerical elites in the making of nationalist claims in French Canada in four strategic periods [5].

I - Initial Quest for Survival in Québec (1760-1792)

With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the British Empire absorbed the colony of New France, renamed Québec, where a distinct community had developed during the preceding century. Historical documents clearly indicate that, after so many years of war and economic hardship, His Majesty's new subjects above all wanted security in a predictable environment. They also hoped that their habits and ways of life be disturbed at little as possible by the new masters.

Respected historians such as Lanctôt (1929) have maintained that habitants of New France had never been involved in any collective political action and that they were accustomed to more or less passively follow the prescriptions of the French colonial administration. The imposition by the British of new sets of legal rules[6] and social norms, the strains created by the arrival of a few hundred adventurers, and the disastrous state of the economy fostered uncertainty and disarray among the Canadians, as the new subjects were called[7]. Some of their most articulate members voiced concerns about the lack of essential supplies, the bad faith of some local authorities, the confusion regarding applicable norms and legislation, and generally the conflict of values between British and Canadians.

In Montréal, Québec City and London, the British considered a wide variety of arrangements to stabilize the situation and ensure allegiance, including quick and dirty measures to assimilate the new subjects.

In reaction to uncertainty in general and threats to their habits and customs in particular, as early as 1764, a unified front of secular and religious leaders came up with specific compromise proposals to establish a modus vivendi with the British in dealing with the political, legal and commercial tensions. Generalized beliefs developed about what were the causes of the strains, who was to blame and what was desirable for the community's future, particularly with respect to freedom of religion and the reinstatement of French civil laws (Coutume de Paris): the ideology of la survivance or Survival was born. Members of the community supported their spokesmen who made claims on behalf of the community: Canadians were becoming a nation[8].

Those who claimed to represent ten thousand most dutiful heads of family were mostly priests, Canadian-born seigneurs (land owners) and bourgeois (professionals, traders). The role of the clergy was preponderant in such a coalition that never had existed in New France. Their influence prevailed by default as much as by interest.

The clergy first played a major role by default. The seigniorial institution in New France (fundamentally different from aristocracy in France) was a well-adapted, production-oriented framework for the rural community. Unfortunately, after the conquest, only some of the seigneurs had remained in Québec: they were not necessarily independent financially, and their influence tended to be strictly local. The only structure capable of a socializing function all over the territory consisted of the religious institutions. The local clergy, educated and articulate, in control of the education and health systems, but sharing with the population the hardship of the times, were rapidly tagged by British civilian and military authorities as natural and respectable interlocutors, who could keep the populace within proper bounds.

The clergy also had its spiritual and material interests in the balance. The main objective of any organization is its survival and churches are no exception to this rule. In the second half of the XVIIIth century, religious institutions and religious values were under attack in France; in Great Britain, Roman Catholics did not yet enjoy full civil rights; in Québec, the situation was confused. Instructions from London were to establish the Church of England both in principles and in practice and to induce Canadians to embrace the Protestant religion (Instructions to General James Murray, cited in Reid, McNaught and Crowe, 1964:49). However, British generals and colonial governors generally held the opinion that, since Canadians are very ignorant and extremely tenacious of their religion, nothing can contribute so much to make them staunch subjects to his Majesty as the new government giving them every reason to imagine no alteration is to be attempted in that point (Report of Governor Murray on the state of Government in Quebec, cited in Reid, McNaught and Crowe, 1964:50). Without going into all the details[9], it is clear that the clergy had an objective interest to co-operate with the colonial authorities and derive from this interaction a symbolic and a practical recognition for itself, as well as formal status for Roman Catholic institutions, in addition to whatever else could be obtained in the bargain.

In demanding that Roman Catholic subjects in Québec not be treated like the other subjects of the Protestant king, but be allowed to retain their civil laws and the freedom to practice their religion, the Canadian clergy was formulating nationalist demands to ensure the survival of Canadians, with their unique cultural characteristics, in British North America. In so doing, the clergy was also paving the way to its own survival and development. By 1774, the British crown had not only maintained dues payable to the seigneur and re-instituted French civil laws, but also granted the free exercise of the Roman Catholic religion, restored the tithe, allowed Roman Catholics to occupy positions in the administration of the colony, and authorized the appointment of a new Roman Catholic bishop[10]. British Protestant merchants were shocked by such a triumph of papism. Actually, it was a triumph of the clergy's conciliatory politics.

II - Parliamentary Struggles in Lower Canada (1792-1840)

Since the time of their arrival in Québec, British merchants and Loyalist settlers had relentlessly petitioned for the summoning of an assembly, as promised by London as early as 1763. The following excerpt of 1764 is typical:

We beg leave almost humbly to petition that it may please your Majesty, to order a House of Representatives to be chosen in this as in other of your majesty's provinces; there being a number more than sufficient of loyal and well affected Protestants […] to form a competent and respectable House of Assembly (cited in Reid, McNaught and Crowe, 1964:51-52).

Canadian secular elites had opposed this idea for three main reasons: there was no parliamentary tradition in New France; they had enough difficulty adapting to other social, economic and legal changes; they did not want to support a new institution that would necessarily generate new administrative expenditures and therefore make new taxes unavoidable. In addition, the idea of an assembly composed exclusively of loyal and well affected Protestants was preposterous.

Two sets of reasons gradually changed their minds: (1) the introduction of some form of parliamentary government seemed unavoidable and only a matter of time, because Loyalist settlers were increasing their pressures to enforce British civil law and the Crown was perceived to systematically yield to their claims; (2) the democratic ideals were no longer associated with Britain only, but also with the United States and France and, beyond these ideals, basic operating principles of parliamentary government became obvious and attractive, for instance no taxation without representation, and one man, one vote. While Loyalist settlers and British merchants were concerned with their individual rights, Canadians in favour of an assembly wished to assert the collective rights of their people: it was a genuine manifestation of nationalist claims[11].

Like the secular elite, the Canadian clergy had been socialized in ancien régime institutions and was initially reticent to espouse these possibly subversive European and Liberal ideas, that displaced legitimacy from the sovereign of divine right to the popular will of the nation as a whole. Clerical elites also feared that passions and excesses would necessarily accompany elections and parliamentary debates. They were not wrong.

The constitution of 1792 took away from the colony of Québec its western section mainly settled by Loyalists: it became Upper Canada. What remained was called Lower Canada. The Constitutional Act also gratified both provinces with a limited form of parliamentary government. Immediately after the first elections in Lower Canada, two points of contention divided the assembly into loose coalitions: a de facto majority comprising most French-speaking members, and a minority of mostly English-speaking members having the support of British authorities. Before any substantial matter was discussed, procedural disputes arose over the election of the orator and the status of the French language in the assembly. Two parties developed, largely along community, and ethnic, lines: the Parti Canadien and the British Party, the latter benefiting from the support of colonial authorities. Each had its militant newspapers and political clubs, but above all, each was catering to communities with very different values and socio-economic interests (urban and commercial versus rural and agrarian). Not surprisingly, each party held radically divergent views on the full range of political and socio-economic issues. Very rapidly, members of the Parti Canadien claimed that the assembly, which they controlled, should have jurisdiction over fiscal policies and all government expenditures in the colony.

It would be a mistake to believe that nothing positive came out of the assembly between 1792 and 1837. However, confrontation was endless and inevitably lead to the governor suspending or dissolving the assembly. The Canadian community mobilized in reaction to these repeated acts of authority, and the Patriotes, as the most radical Canadians were now called, demanded the election of members of the colony's upper house (the governor-appointed legislative council), advocated full political autonomy for the province within the British Empire, called for a boycott of British imported goods, and eventually instigated armed uprisings in 1837 and 1838.

By granting a colonial parliament, the Crown had indeed given Canadians a powerful, and legitimate, instrument to support their nationalist claims[12]. By dissolving the legislature when the assembly adopted motions unpalatable to colonial authorities and the British Party, governors almost cornered themselves. Fortunately for them, colonial authorities had some influential allies among Canadians.

After the Treaty of Paris, almost each new decade confirmed some civil rights of Roman Catholics in the colony, introduced some safeguards for the free exercise of their religion, or gratified their ecclesiastical elites with some privileges. The Roman Catholic structure in the province became respectable to the point that, around 1810, Anglican Lord Bishop Mountain complained that the Roman Catholic bishop's influence on colonial authorities was on the way to surpassing his own. During the parliamentary struggles, British authorities allowed Mgr. Plessis to use the title of bishop, a first in the British Empire: the Catholic bishop had become a strategic piece on the colonial chessboard. At the same time, however, there was a decline of religious practice, to the point that, in 1831, in many parishes[13] only a minority of Catholics were doing their Easter duties (Rousseau and Remiggi, 1992).

During the parliamentary struggles, clerical elites never supported politics of confrontation. They made serious effort to calm down Patriote leaders and called their supporters to order in the name of the required respect for legal authority. Nationalist leaders counter-attacked by holding rallies in front of parish churches after Sunday masses, by questioning the imposition of the tithe even upon non-practising Catholics, by advocating the election of parish councils and their control of parish budgets, hitherto in the exclusive hands of parish priests. Patriote leaders were promptly excommunicated and bishops approved the use of force against the rebels. In his famous Report of 1839, Lord Durham wrote:

In the general absence of any permanent institutions of civil government, the Catholic Church has presented almost the only semblance of stability and organization, and furnished the only effectual support for civilization and order. […] The Catholic clergy of Lower Canada are entitled to this expression of my esteem [...] because a grateful recognition of their eminent services [...] is especially due to them from one who has administered the government of the Province in these troubled times.

When there is a conflict between nationalist leaders and ecclesiastical elites, the clergy always gives priority to its own survival, even if it means to ally with enemies of the nation. The Rebellion of 1837-1838 in Lower Canada is a well-fitting illustration of this.

III - Conservative French-Canadian Nationalism (1840-1960)

The crushing of the Patriotes' uprising and subsequent political changes in 1840-1841 radically transformed not only the expression but also the nature of nationalist claims among French-Canadians. Their nationalism became generally more accomodative. Autonomist, republican and anti-clerical demands would still be espoused by some intellectuals, the Rouges and their successors, but they would no longer mobilize any large segment of the population.

A major realignment of socio-political leadership actually took place in French Canada. Conservative elites joined with the clerical establishment to propagate the so-called national creed, that was to dominate French-Canadian nationalism for over a century, up until about 1960. Essentially, it maintained that every race had a divine mission and that the mission of French Canadians was to convert North America to Roman Catholicism under the aegis of the British constitution, the general guidance of the pope[14], and the local leadership of the clergy. There were many variants to this movement and it would be an exaggeration to see it as monolithic.

At the religious level, there was a formidable missionary offensive over several decades, with both short-term and long-term consequences: the proportion of Catholics doing their Easter duties doubled between 1840 and 1842 (Rousseau and Remiggi, 1992); new religious orders of men and women were founded and colonial authorities authorized several more to come from France; a wide assortment of new religious institutions were established in each diocese to adapt to local needs that secular authorities were not responding to. Actually, after just a few decades, religious institutions had become absolutely dominant, largely by default, in sectors such as French-language education, health and charities. During this period, dioceses also became active in all channels of socialization, sponsoring service clubs, building recreation centres, founding daily and weekly newspapers, and even funding radio stations. The development of networks of organizations under religious influence led to the institutional completeness of the French-Canadian community (except in the economic sector), almost without governmental interference. As long as political authorities did not hinder the expansion of the Church into all these areas, clerical elites were willing to support the political regime.

From a political perspective, religious leaders perceived their role to educate the people and enlighten consciences: they were quite keen to openly back up those candidates or parties offering the best guarantee of defending our faith, our language, and our national institutions (Laflèche, 1866:212)… and did not hesitate excommunicating those (such as socialists) who threatened the foundations of the community. Needless to say, the nationalist political establishment was all too happy to make things easier for the Church and support their institutions.

Indeed, religious leaders were nationalist, and their definition of the French-Canadian nation was a trinity characterized by unity of language, unity of faith, and uniformity in mores, customs, practices, institutions and laws. To be successful, politicians had to repudiate any radical opinions and chant a version or another of the national creed. As late as 1962, it was still common for candidates to publish the names of all their relatives who belonged to religious orders.

The nationalism of the religious elites was integrationist, advocating for French Canadians, coast to coast, rights that were equal and identical to those possessed by the dominant, English-speaking community. Under the umbrella of this conservative, religious nationalism, there was room for many specific, and sometimes conflicting, claims and these could be expressed through a variety of social and political organizations. For instance, nationalists disagreed among themselves regarding the appropriate measure of political autonomy the provincial government of Québec should enjoy - but politicians, or intellectuals, who advocated either considerable centralization in the hands of the Federal government or outright political independence for Québec were rapidly labelled as traitors, extremists or lunatics. The national creed was no home for disturbing verses.

IV - Contemporary Québec Nationalism (1960 to present)

During the XXth century, Québec society became more industrialized, more urbanized, and more open to the outside world. It also became more secular and fewer members of the community kept agreeing with the conservative nationalist ideology of the preceding century. By 1960, progressive secular leaders were proposing a platform of modernization of institutions and mentalities, in two basic and complementary directions: they advocated more intervention by the state and less intervention by the Church. Within about a decade, their views would become dominant, a sign that the community was ripe for a significant change.

By supporting more intervention by the state, modernizing elites were calling for a greater involvement of the Québec provincial government in the areas of culture, education, health and welfare, and the economy. This modernizing platform was an autonomist one, because, in addition to pressing the federal government for a better recognition of the bicultural nature of Canada, it emphasized also the need for the Québec government to increase its fiscal resources as well as its constitutional powers. Catchwords popularized by the Liberal government elected in 1960 and 1962 were It's Time for a Change, Provincial Sovereignty, the Québec State and Becoming Masters in Our Own House[15].

Québec religious leaders had considerable difficulty with the secularizing programme of the modernizing elites, specially in the structures of education, health and welfare, that the Church had built during the past century and where it enjoyed a virtual monopoly. Clearly, withdrawal was not in its own best interest - and it did all it could to remain present. Baum (1993) identifies three dimensions of secularization in Québec: the national myth, social institutions, and individual consciences. The secularization advocated by the dominant modernizing elites targeted the first two dimensions only, taking away from the clergy any direct and systematic influence over the mission of the nation and the direction of its institutions. Within a decade, all of the Church-controlled social institutions were taken over by government agencies; the only element that bishops were able to safeguard, thanks to a historical compromise, was the denominational nature of (but not the actual authority over) the school system[16]. While there now seems to be a consensus over the limited influence of the Roman Catholic clergy in Québec society, the Assembly of Québec Bishops (AQB) still publishes regularly its views on the issues of the day such as social justice, the environment, disarmament, international development, homosexuality and aids, abortion and new reproduction technologies. Québec bishops now rank among the most progressive elites, advocating social justice and opposing neo-conservative economics.

The Roman Catholic clergy in Québec had no problem supporting autonomist claims, or at least treating them with sympathy. Ecclesiastical elites were however somewhat uncomfortable with the claims of the separatist movement that advocated full political independence for Québec. This was a century-old claim, revived periodically by marginal (and often aggressively socialist and anti-clerical) intellectuals. The movement eventually took off during the nationalist modernization decade of the 1960s and became respectable enough to capture a parliamentary majority and form the Québec government from 1976 to 1985 and again since 1994. Québec separatism is a challenge for the Roman Catholic Church for several reasons.

Historically, Roman Catholicism was first implanted in the St. Lawrence valley and then spread to other parts of Canada. The natural prudence of churches regarding political change, the universal dimension of Roman Catholicism, its institutional links from coast to coast despite cultural and language differences, the moral obligations toward Roman Catholic French-Canadian minorities outside Québec, the traditional support of the clergy to accomodative rather than separatist nationalism, are all objective motives that ecclesiastical authorities have to oppose full political sovereignty for Québec. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church in Canada is far from being monolithic. In the preceding period, there had been a long series of confrontations, within the Canadian Church, over the language issue (Gingras, 1994). As early as 1871, Québec bishops saw the need for an organizational structure of their own and they created it, but until 1943 there was no Canada-wide assembly of Catholic bishops. Since the 1960s, attitudes of Roman Catholics in Québec and in other provinces have evolved in strikingly different directions (Gingras, 1993). Therefore, it is not surprising to observe, in the last few decades, two sets of ecclesiastical attitudes regarding the constitutional debate - not necessarily contradictory, but definitely distinct, attitudes.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB)[17] has acknowledged the uniqueness of Québec and has not explicitly opposed Québec sovereignty; under the pressure of Québec bishops, it has even gone so far as to affirm the right of Québecers to self-determination (Gingras and Leblond, 1995), but it is a well-known fact that most English-speaking bishops across Canada do privately object to Québec sovereignty. The AQB, on the other hand, considers that Québecers have done more than their share to make Canada work; Québec bishops now see major constitutional change as desirable and inevitable, in the direction of more political autonomy for Québec; while they have not indicated exactly how much autonomy is desirable, they have declared that the options to remain within Canada (with a renewed constitution) or to form a new country (an independent Québec) are equally legitimate. Furthermore, they have supported controversial language laws introduced by the pro-sovereignty government (Gingras and Leblond, 1995) and, as recently as 1998, Montréal archbishop Turcotte denounced some elements in the constitutional strategy of the federal government.

Because the constitutional issue is very divisive, from a pan-Canadian perspective, the CCCB has neither the will nor the capacity to mobilize Catholics for or against options that do not jeopardize its spiritual or temporal interests; actually, any leaning toward one side or the other could backfire. The AQB position is easier: it openly supports Québec nationalist claims, but not to the point of advocating independence; it has the will (but not necessarily any longer the capacity) to mobilize Québecers for nationalist goals that do not endanger its spiritual or temporal interests; actually, political independence could bring at least symbolic benefits to the Québec Roman Catholic hierarchy, and a direct connection with the Holy See.

C. Conclusion

Because religions establish moral principles, the objectives of nationalist leaders never leave religious elites indifferent. This is illustrated by the attitudes of Roman Catholic authorities toward Québec nationalism. Chart 3 offers a synthesis of what the model suggests and what a careful study reveals: in each period studied, the Church has supported nationalist claims when they corresponded to its own values and interests.

After the take-over of New France by Britain, the clergy joined with other elites to obtain different safeguards for the Canadian community, the maintenance of traditional institutions and full recognition for the Roman Catholic Church in the colony; when secular elites adopted liberal and autonomist views and a politics of confrontation against British authorities, the Church supported law and order; after the rebellion was crushed, religious authorities took over the social leadership, spread a national creed based on conservative nationalism, supported institutional completeness and sympathized with claims for the political autonomy of Québec within Canada; finally, in the contemporary period, despite their initial opposition to the secularizing dimension of modernizing nationalism, Québec bishops remained sympathetic to autonomist claims, but did not openly come out in favour of full political sovereignty for Québec.

It is normal that religious authorities try to influence the direction of their community, because religion is not only about afterlife, but also about providing members of a community with a meaning to their earthly life, even in a secular community. And this inevitably means taking a position on nationalist claims and methods to realize them.
Chart 3
Attitudes of the French-Canadian religious elites toward mainstream nationalist claims
Period*Operating basis of religion Clerical or secular nature of Québec community Predicted attitudes of the religious elites toward nationalist claims, according to Chart 2 model. Actual attitudes of the religious elites toward mainstream nationalist claims
I - Initial quest for survival in Québec
Universal base;
locally under siege and initially cut off from outside contacts.
More clerical than secular. Moderating influence, likely to support claims based on tradition. Local clergy fully supports claims based on traditions, looks for accommodation with regime, and opposes proposals for parliamentary government.
II - Parliamentary struggles in Lower Canada
Universal base,
but local elites have limited outside contacts.
Less clerical than in previous period. Moderating influence, more likely to oppose claims than in previous period, but still likely to support claims based on tradition. Canadian ecclesiastical authorities are initially reticent, then openly oppose liberal-autonomist claims and confrontational methods of nationalist leaders.
III - Conservative French-Canadian nationalism
Universal base;
gradually extends to all of Canada.
Highly clerical and in expansion, for most of the period. Moderating influence, likely to support claims that would increase its own influence. Québec clergy strongly supports and even shares leadership in making claims based on traditions, remains accomodative with political authorities, but supports autonomist claims in areas where it has more influence provincially than federally (education, etc.).
IV - Contemporary Québec nationalism
Universal base;
with separate regional structures within Canada.
Increasingly secular, in a rapid transition. Likely to oppose secularizing tendencies of nationalist movement; the closer the structure is to the community, the less likely to oppose its nationalist claims. Religious authorities initially oppose the secularizing dimension of modernizing nationalism; after the take-over of religious institutions by government, they find a new niche in making claims for social justice.

CCCB** supports dialogue and opposes no constitutional options respectful of human rights and social justice.

AQB*** supports nationalist claims in general, provided that they are respectful of human rights and social justice, and advocates constitutional revision, but does not openly favour political sovereignty of Québec.

Period boundaries are indicative only.
** CCCB: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
*** AQB: Assembly of Québec Bishops


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Anonymous (1860). Relation du voyage de S.A.R. le Prince de Galles, en Amérique. Montréal.

Baum, Gregory (1993). La sécularisation au Québec et la réponse de l'Église. Paper presented at the joint meeting of Société canadienne d'histoire de l'Église catholique and Canadian Catholic Historical Association, Ottawa.

Brubaker, Roger (1992). Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Dumont, Fernand (1993). Genèse de la société québécoise. Montréal: Boréal.

Gingras, François-Pierre (1993). Divergences ou convergences? Les laïcs anglophones et francophones dans le catholicisme canadien, Studies in Religion, XX(1): pp. 77-95.

Gingras, François-Pierre (1994). Une compagne de route: L'Église catholique, de la naissance à l'éclatement du nationalisme canadien-français, Études d'histoire religieuse, 60, pp. 5-24.

Gingras, François-Pierre and Robert Leblond (1995). Le traitement de la question nationale dans les messages des évêques d'un État binational: le cas du Canada et du Québec. Paper presented at the world congress of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion, Québec.

Greenfeld, Liah (1992), Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Laflèche, Louis-François (1866). Quelques considérations sur les rapports de la société civile avec la religion et la famille, Montréal: Eusèbe Sénécal.

Lanctôt, Gustave (1929). L'Administration de la Nouvelle-France. Paris.

Reid, J.H. Stewart, Kenneth McNaught and Harry S.Crowe (1964 ). A Source-Book of Canadian History, rev. ed. Toronto: Longmans.

Rémond, René (1974). Introduction à l'histoire de notre temps: le XIXè siècle (1815-1914). Paris, Seuil.

Rousseau, Louis and Frank W. Remiggi (1992). Le renouveau religieux montréalais au XIXe siècle: une analyse spatio-temporelle de la pratique pascale, Sciences religieuses 21:4, pp. 341-454.

Shama, Simon (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.


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[1] It must be remembered that ideal types do not necessarily correspond to actual forms in real life, but serve as standards to which actual forms may be compared.

[2] As opposed to nation in the legal sense of people under an independent government, or state (such as in "United Nations").

[3] This control does not necessarily imply full political sovereignty.

[4] It is important to remember that, by definition, secular communities are anti-clerical (i.e. against a predominent influence of the clergy in public affairs), but not necessarily anti-religious (i.e. against the existence of religions).

[5] A paper like this one obviously cannot go into all the relevant details: some shortcuts and simplifications are unavoidable. Experts in Canadian history are kindly asked to be indulgent.

[6] Including provisions that excluded Roman Catholics from the civil service.

[7] The French called "Canadiens" the settlers born in New France. British generals, such as James Wolfe, used the name "Canadians" to refer to them (see Wolfe's proclamation of June 28, 1759 cited in Reid, McNaught and Crowe, 1964:45). When the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) came to Canada to lay the cornerstone of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, he deplored that the British living in Canada still scorned to call themselves Canadians (see Anonymous, 1860:99).

[8] This interpretation may be contrasted with that of Dumont (1993).

[9] Suffice it to mention that, between 1759 and 1764, the number of priests in Québec had dropped from 196 to 137, and this was attributable to two main reasons: (1) the war and then the British occupation made it impossible for French priests to travel to Québec and (2) new priests could not be ordained because the last Roman Catholic bishop of Québec City had died in 1760 and no successor had been appointed. In the meantime, a few French-speaking Protestants were appointed to stragtegic administrative positions.

[10] Bishops of Québec City had been appointed always by the king of France. For obvious political reasons, George III could not allow this tradition to continue, nor could he allow the pope to choose the bishop. But, as head of the Church of England, he could certainly not appoint a Catholic bishop. In the absence of any action, the chapter of six canons attached to the Québec City cathedral, took upon itself to "elect" a new bishop in September 1763. Both the British colonial authorities and the Holy See protested and declared that the chapter did not have this right. The chapter quickly reacted and "designated" another candidate who was then accepted by London, appointed by Rome, and consecrated in France; Mgr. Briand returned to Canada in September 1766 with full episcopal powers but with the official title of superintendent of the Romish Church.

[11] On the links between nationalism and democratic ideals at the end of the XVIIIth century, see Brubaker (1992:ch. 2), Greenfeld (1992:ch.2), Rémond (1974:179ff), Shama (1989).

[12] Parliamentary government, even in its most limited form, is an instrument for the promotion of community claims; the Reformist movement in British-dominated Upper Canada in the same period is a another good example, but it lacked the nationalist component central to claims in Lower Canada.

[13] Several of these parishes witnessed armed uprisings against the colonial authorities.

[14] As such, it belonged to the ultramontane trend in the Roman Catholic Church.

[15] Liberal premier Jean Lesage was a former federal cabinet minister and it is well worth noting that, before joining the Québec Liberal Party, he had been often accused of supporting the centralizing inclinations of the federal government.

[16] Two parallel Roman Catholic and Protestant school networks, under the authority of the Department of Education; traditionally, Catholic schools were open to Roman Catholics and Protestant schools to all others. This is to be replaced in 1998 by two networks based on language (French and English).

[17] This organisation is composed of about 125 Roman Catholic bishops in Canada. Of this number, about 45 are from Québec. These figures vary slightly from year to year because they include retired and emeritus bishops. There are 70 dioceses in all of Canada (including 23 in Québec).

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