|View of the Catholic Church in St-Evariste, Quebec (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Front of Roman Catholic church, Ubay, Bohol, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
BBC World today broadcast a programme that drew attention to the parlous state of the Philippines, in which a quarter of their 100 million people live below the poverty line --- which is to say they live in the most abject poverty.
The interviewer, Stephen Sackur, interviewed a woman of 30 who, married at 17, had borne 11 children. Asked if she had had a choice in the matter, she said she would have had three. Sackur, by implication, put a great deal of the blame for this on the Roman Catholic Church and the hold it has over Filipinos.
But hang on a mnute --- we can illustrate this same story, closer to home.
In the 1980s I wrote a book, called Life of the Party, about a French-Canadian friend of mine, Gerard Fortin, who, born in 1923, told me the first strong memory he had in life was of an occasion after the death of his mother at the age of 29. She had married at 17, and just like the woman in contemporary Manila, she had borne 11 children before dying, wornout from child-bearing. In those days, the local priest --- usually a man assigned to a parish in which he stayed for most of his lifetime, without whose advice no family made decisions --- had called his parishioners together at Sunday service, instructing them it was their duty to take care of the children of the recently-deceased member of his flock. So Gerry remembered how they had all been dressed in their best clothes, lined up in the tiny farmhouse which was their home, as the parishioners from the same rang of farmhouses populated by semi-literate people like Gerry’s family, came in and said, “I will take this one,” or “I’ll take the baby,” or “Let me have the eldest boy.” And so the family was distributed around the rang, where they mostly lived as unhappy, half-accepted appendages to the already large families of the local farmers and their wives.
Gerry went to school, effectively, for three years, learning how to read, but not how to write. He was a boy curious about the world, and he made a habit of going to a neighbouring farmer every evening and reading the newspaper to him aloud.
In this way he struggled into puberty, barely educated, unprepared to undertake any role in life, and it became inevitable that when he reached the age of 15 or so he joined the winter exodus of 100,000 similar youths and men from Quebec villages into the endless forests to their north to work as bushworkers in appalling conditions for companies owned either by Americans or by English-Canadians.
The similarity with the Philippines goes deeper than just the high birthrate: to all intents and purposes, the French-Canadian population of Quebec was kept by the Church and its priests in a condition which made it inevitable that the only role they were capable of playing in the developing industrialization of the province was at the lowest, poorest-paid level of labourer and navvy. Of course, as in all such societies, there was a local elite that could afford good schools and all the rest of it for its children, but in the 1950s Quebec still bore the marks of a priest-ridden, downtrodden society unable to lift itself on to its feet.
The Church, of course, had done a remarkable job in ensuring the survival of French-speaking people in North America. After the English turned out victorious in the battle for North America, most of the French-speaking elite returned to France, leaving the 70,000 ordinary people to be ministered to by their Church. In what is still called to this day “the revenge of the cradle”, the Church encouraged their flock to have as many children as possible, so that those 70,000 people grew to today’s total of almost eight million in Quebec, another million who are said to have migrated to other provinces, and some five million who over the years, left Quebec to live in New England and other parts of the United States. This is an astonishing result by any standards.
Unfortunately, the Church which directed and inspired this great effort was extremely reactionary, and although it was in complete control of the education system until 1960, it suspected technical, scientific and modern education to such an extent that the pupils it turned out from its schools were unfitted to take part in the growth of a society that, along with others across North America, was evolving, industrializing and requiring more of its citizens.
Naturally, this was not occurring without opposition. When I first moved to Montreal in 1957 I came immediately into contact with French-Canadian journalists who one could say were seething with indignation at the impact the Church was having on their society, and were desperate to find a way to change it once and for all. By this time, of course, Quebecers had built a vigorous union movement, whose leaders also were as determined to bring their society into line with neighbouring North American jurisdictions, as were similar leaders elsewhere.
Nevertheless, although the account I have written above may paint too broad a brush of the backwardness of Quebec society at that time, it is true in its major aspects. Years later I made a film about a Quebec farming family half of whose members went to Alberta to become French-speaking citizens there on the land in an atmosphere that, their priest hoped, would free them from the dangers of the technical education to which he feared they were falling prey in Quebec. He issued this instruction to his parishioners in a document which astounded me: in the early 1950s he spoke of technical education as a sort of evil incarnate, as of all the accompanying features of society built upon it. He left it to his parishioners to decide which of them should emigrate west and which stay in Quebec, but he left them in no doubt that this was their duty. And so --- extraordinarily, when one looks at it from the eyes of today --- they loyally carried out his instructions, went to Alberta, and there, outsiders in an English-speaking world, they had created their own settlements, built their own farms and institutions, and were bringing up families of young people who --- a great irony this, surely --- had become bilingual, and were free of all aspirations to the separate national status that their cousins left behind in Quebec were being swept by.
When I got to know people of my own generation in Montreal I discovered that most of them came from families of twelve, fourteen, even in some cases sixteen children. But they themselves were having only two or three children. Their opposition to the dictates of the Church had already started before the change of government in 1960 swept away remnants of the old religious societal controls. Within a generation or so, a society that had been completely priest-ridden had freed themselves from this anachronistic religion. I cannot swear to this figure, but I seem to remember than in the 1950s some 18,000 nuns, priests and others of the kind were in residence in the man seminaries and convents in Montreal. Today most of these have been sold, and the Church is finding it increasingly difficult, for want of acolytes, to keep even those few that remain in operation.
Stephen Sackur interviewed agents who propagate family planning in the wasteland of Manila. When he mentioned the policy of abstention favoured by the Catholic hierarchy, they immediately demurred, saying it was useless, that, indeed, the Catholics were the main problem they had to deal with in their efforts to reduce the birthrate so that adults could begin to live a more productive and decent life on the few resources they had. One of these women said she and her husband used condoms, and did not consider themselves poorer Catholics for that reason; and the other said she had been sterilized, and similarly considered herself a loyal Catholic.
Someone should tell these people that the negative controls exercised by the Church can be shucked off, if only the parishioners are ready to do it. And that this has been proven in Quebec, which today has one of the lowest birthrates of any jurisidiction in North America. And that Quebec society has, in the half century they have been exercising their personal freedoms, made significant achievements that have earned them fame and fortune on a world scale, and in many different disciplines --- arts, as well as business, science as well as philosophy.
It’s as easy as pie, if only you can get rid of the Church.