Chapter 11. Politics to 1860

11.5 Ultramontanism and Secularism

Beginning with the Revolution in France in the 19th century, there arose a division between the Catholicism of Canada and that of France. In Europe, the Church that recovered from the French Revolution was a much weaker organization, one that had been removed (along with the French monarchy) from the principal corridors of power. Catholic clergymen in Canada struggled with this situation. Some were inclined to support and take their lead from the more liberal and politically progressive Gallican church in post-revolutionary France. The majority of Canadien clergy, however, despised the Revolution and its anti-clerical bias;  for them, the true source of power was in Rome, at the Vatican, in the hands of the Pope. These clerics looked beyond Alps to the Holy Father for both spiritual and political guidance. For this reason they were called ultramontanists. They entered political life convinced that whatever form government might take in the Canadas, it had to include the Catholic hierarchy.

The ultramontane element was not exclusive to the Church. There were many laymen and laywomen who supported these ideals as key to preserving Canadien institutions and values.[1] But secularism was on the rise, even in Lower Canada (Canada East). The ultramontanes were suspicious enough of the anglophone Protestant politicians but they were especially critical of francophone politicians who advocated a more modern sensibility and a compromise on the power of the Church. The Church found it easier in many instances to deal with British governors and the Château Clique, who appreciated the role of the Church in containing dissent, than with the francophone liberal professionals who were secularists, like Louis-Joseph Papineau.

Key Points

  • Despite the apparent unity of the Catholic Church in Quebec, there were factions with closer allegiances to Rome than to France, let alone Britain.
  • The interests of the Catholic Church were, from time to time, best served by working collaboratively with the British regime, rather than with anti-clerical/secularist Canadiens.

  1. Susan Mann, The Dream of Nation: A Social and Intellectual History of Quebec, 2nd edition (Montreal & Kingston: McGill–Queen's University Press, 2002), 119-22.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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