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  • The Catholic Origins of the Quiet Revolution, 1931–1970
  • Nicole Neatby
Michel Gauvreau . The Catholic Origins of the Quiet Revolution, 1931–1970. McGill-Queen's University Press 2005. 512. $85.00

Michael Gauvreau has produced an audacious and thoroughly researched analysis in which he aims to demonstrate that Catholicism, which most historians have associated with retrograde conservatism, was on the contrary a central and dynamic accelerator of modernity in Quebec leading up to the Quiet Revolution. He does so through a [End Page 351] meticulous discourse analysis of the ideals and objectives of the Catholic Action militants starting in the 1930s and a detailed study of their internal debates on the meaning of Catholicism. The author makes the case that the Catholic Action organizations were at the forefront of emerging social democratic ideals, redefinitions of the nature and role of women and the family, including sexuality. They were also influential in encouraging Quebec society's acceptance of increased state intervention.

To many, particularly in English Canada, this line of argument will appear counterintuitive. However, in many respects Gauvreau's study belongs to a newly emerging current of analysis. While the author duly recognizes that 'recent Quebec scholarship has begun to look again at Roman Catholicism as a "dynamic" rather than a purely "reactionary" institution,' his debt to these scholars could have been more fully analyzed. Indeed, Jean-Philippe Warren and E. Martin Meunier have also turned their attention to Catholic Action movements and linked them to the origins of the Quiet Revolution. In Sortir de la 'Grande noirceur': L'horizon personaliste de la Revolution tranquille (2002) they suggest that Action Catholic movements inspired by personalist ideals prepared the terrain and oriented the transformations coming to fruition during the 1960s. In effect, Gauvreau has responded to an invitation extended by these sociologists to investigate fully and qualify their hypothesis with extensive primary source research. And he has done so admirably, producing in the process new knowledge, new perspectives, and scholarly analysis that in many instances is groundbreaking. In short, his study is certain to become required reading for scholars of the Quiet Revolution.

Among Gauvreau's contributions will be his demonstration that those who contested the official church pronouncements held deep Catholic spiritual beliefs. Some of the anticlerical stances of Catholic Action militants have been all too often equated with their eventual rejection of the Catholic religion itself. Gauvreau admirably disentangles this coupling. In fact, he goes further to argue that it was precisely the strongly held Catholic beliefs of secular elites that account for their critique of Quebec society. He is convincing when he concludes that they were hoping 'to solidify the prestige of Catholicism as a doctrinal and spiritual force.' His detailed and nuanced analysis of the debates over the education Bill 60 and the attitudes of the citelibristes provide particularly revealing and compelling evidence.

However, by far Gauvreau's most significant and groundbreaking contribution is his thorough analysis of the attitudes of Action Catholic members on gender, family, and sexuality. More to the point, his contention that 'it was not the creation of an organized secular feminist movement – which did not exist prior to 1966 – but changes [End Page 352] that Catholic educators apprehended in the sexuality of female adolescents that presaged the seismic shift in women's status.' Questions pertaining to gender have not interested most scholars studying the origins of the Quiet Revolution per se. Gauvreau's original and stimulating analysis should encourage more scholars to pursue his provocative line of argument, either to document his claim further or to qualify it, if not disprove it.

And indeed, some of Gauvreau's claims will need further investigation. His main thesis that Catholic Action militants' ideals and the debates they engaged led Quebecers at large to turn away from the traditional positions of the church, preparing the terrain for the transformations of the 1960s, remains to be fully documented. Proving influence of any kind is particularly challenging. It is all the more so when discussing ideals shared by a select group, militants of the Catholic Action movements, most of whom were members of an elite.

In the case of changing attitudes towards women, the author...


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pp. 351-353
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