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  • Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Québec by Geneviève Zubrzycki
  • Kevin J. Christiano
Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Québec. By Geneviève Zubrzycki. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 2016. Pp. xi, 226. $105.00 clothbound. ISBN 978-0-226-39154-0; $35.00 paperback. ISBN 978-0-226-39168-7.)

A century ago, the French-speaking population of Québec lived and moved in one of the most thoroughly religious environments to be found anywhere in the Catholic world. Today, the centrality of the Catholic Church in Québec is done. Although Catholicism's institutional remnants, both material and intangible, are noticeable everywhere across the land, the active and even assertive aspects of the Catholic identity that once animated them are largely absent, having withdrawn gently, yet almost totally, during the second half of the twentieth century into the somnolizing ethers of collective memory.

Or did they? In this methodologically ambitious and substantively fascinating book, Geneviève Zubrzycki, a prominent historical sociologist and scholar of religions, acknowledges that the near-fusion of church and state that at one time marked Québec society certainly has disintegrated. However, she contends, Catholic religiosity lingers in its culture like the very real pain that amputees feel from the phantom presence of a lost limb (p. 2). Put differently, Québec's superficial secularity, she writes, is now "infiltrated by ghosts" (p. 17).

Zubrzycki aspires to tell the story of this shift at the same time as she augments and corrects theories of nationalism and secularization. More particularly, she endeavors to demonstrate how "Québec's religious past is still very much a feature of its present religious landscape and the challenges it poses for a self-avowed [End Page 726] secular society" (pp. 2–3). To chart the historical course of these connections, she takes as her study's core symbol the public celebrations associated with the feast of Québec's patron, Saint Jean-Baptiste, which occurs annually on June 24.

In the early history of the holiday, the saint was embodied in the image and person of a cherubic, curly-haired male child, posed with a baby lamb at his side and holding a cross on a staff as tall as a crozier. Eventually the boy in the pictures and performances became an adolescent. Finally, the live character was replaced in the most important ceremony, the Saint Jean-Baptiste parade in Montréal, with a modern papier-mâché sculpture of the adult saint (pp. 82–87). Toward the end of this parade in 1969, young protestors formed into a "People's March" that trailed the procession and overturned the saint's float. The giant statue crashed to the ground, and as a result its head was severed from its body (pp. 99–100). In Scripture, Saint Jean lost his head—literally—to scheming leaders; in the streets of Montréal, he suffered decapitation in the accidentally enacted ritual of a nation impatient with centuries of colonial domination enabled by religious traditions of deference (pp. 73–74 and 100–105).

In less representational terms, the majority of people in Québec over time rejected a confessional Catholic self-definition, one rooted in denominational membership and practice. Yet, according to Zubrzycki, they persist as Catholics (of a sort) through immersion in a cultural tradition of the faith that has not receded entirely into the past. Present-day Quebeckers mostly have abandoned Catholic belief and behavior as ways of defining their commitments and shaping their lives. Nevertheless, they remain, in the author's description, "surprisingly Catholic in their secularism" (p. 186). In several recent episodes of perceived threat, for instance, average post-Catholic Quebeckers repaired in great numbers to the rhetorical barricades to preserve privileges for a religion that, under more ordinary circumstances, they would want nothing to do with.

Catholicism in Québec has been reinvented, recoded (p. 118), and "reconfigured," Zubrzycki argues (p. 145). It has been sustained by being relegated to the realm of "heritage" through a process that sociologists call "patrimonialization" (pp. 122–123 and 145–147). Still, such confinement away from the mainstream of daily...


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