By Patrick B. Craine

TROIS-RIVIERES, Quebec, September 22, 2009 ( – The Quebec Assembly of Bishops released a letter Tuesday indicating that they are “concerned” with the province's new compulsory course in relativism, 'Ethics and Religious Culture' (ERC), and that they will continue to “carefully monitor” the program.

Quebec families, and religious and secular groups, have condemned this mandatory program as impugning the fundamental rights of parents over their children's education.  The program aims to cover the major world religions and advocates moral relativism, presenting, for example, homosexuality as a normal and acceptable life choice.

The program was mandated by the Quebec Ministry of Education for all children between grades 1 and 11 as of the 2008-2009 school year.  Over 1,700 requests for exemptions have been submitted by parents to the Ministry, and all have been refused.  At the end of August, a judge in Drummondville denied a petition from a Catholic family to have their children exempted.  Further, Loyola High School, a private Catholic boys' school, awaits judgment on their court case seeking exemption from teaching the program.

In March 2008, the Bishops' Assembly opted for a position of “openness and prudence” on the course.  While noting the inherent problems with a 'neutral' program such as the ERC curriculum, they stated that “it is only through experience that we may judge if the advantages of the ERC program outweigh its limitations or vice versa.”  They decided to evaluate the program through a “meticulous follow-up during the implementation process and a complete evaluation at the end of a three to five year period.”

The letter, sent by Assembly President Bishop Martin Veillette of Trois-Rivieres to Quebec Minister of Education, Recreation and Sports Michelle Courchesne on September 15th, communicates the Assembly's “initial assessment” of the program. 

Bishop Veillette lists the measures that the Assembly has taken to review the curriculum, including consulting parents, teachers, catechists, and diocesan leaders as well as commissioning a group of experts to analyze the program's textbooks.  Based on these measures, he states: “We must say that we are concerned. A growing number of indicators point to the need for significant corrections, without which the program can neither meet its objectives nor fulfill its potential.”

The Assembly has three main concerns, he says.  First, that parents have not been supplied with sufficient information about the program.  Second, that “the place and the presentation of the Christian tradition in the textbooks approved for elementary schools do not respect the requirements of the program.” And third, that “teacher training and support is inadequate to say the least.”

Noting the movement of parents opposing the program who have requested exemptions, he states: “This opposition movement cannot be ignored.”  This statement is more favorable to concerned families than that in his letter to the Minister in March 2008, where, while warning of the danger the compulsory religion program presents to the freedom of conscience, he also expressed a lack of support for exemptions.

“We acknowledge there must be very serious reasons to justify exemption from a school program,” he had said.  “We feel that the program itself does not seem to be open to such a priori objection.”

This latter statement was cited by the Drummondville judge last month when he denied the Catholic parents' exemption petition.

Continuing in the new letter, Bishop Veillette points out that the textbooks do not meet the stated requirements for the program, nor do they live up to the way it was billed by former Education Minister Jean-Marc Fournier prior to the program passing in the National Assembly – both indicating that a predominant place would be given to Christianity.  “Our experts have found that the importance given to the Christian tradition is comparable to that given to other religions,” he states.  “These textbooks will expose the students to religious diversity much more than introduce them in a significant way to Quebec's Christian tradition.”

He is unsatisfied, further, with the way the program presents Christianity.  Noting that the textbooks are “respectful,” he complains that the approach is primarily anecdotal, in many cases simply summarizing “certain of the fundamental narratives of the Christian tradition,” “without helping students to discover the significance of these narratives.”

Additionally, the bishop observes that the program fails to give adequate recognition to the role of Christianity in the development of Quebec.  “Christianity's contribution to the social and cultural life of Quebec, frequently reiterated during consultations which led to the approval of the program, is barely evident and, in some cases, totally absent in the textbooks that were studied,” he states.

The ERC program, he says, “raises very important challenges, particularly where it concerns the fundamental rights and values of our society. … The serious deficiencies in the textbooks, which we have indicated above, must be corrected by means of an approval process that seeks to rigorously meet the requirements set out in the program itself and in the commitments explicitly made by the Government.”

“On our part, we will continue, as we said we would, to carefully monitor the ERC program and its implementation,” he concludes.

While the Quebec Assembly will continue to 'monitor' the program, the Vatican has spoken out strongly against the very founding principles of programs such as that in Quebec.  The Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education released a letter earlier this month, sent May 5th to the presidents of the world's bishops' conferences, deploring government-mandated comparative religion programs, or programs in “religious ethics and culture.”

“In a pluralistic society, the right to religious freedom requires both the assurance of the presence of religious education in schools and the guarantee that such education be in accordance with parents' convictions,” the document states.  “If religious education is limited to a presentation of the different religions, in a comparative and 'neutral' way, it creates confusion or generates religious relativism or indifferentism.”

Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec and Primate of Canada, has himself been a firm opponent of the new program, calling it “the dictatorship of relativism applied beginning in elementary school.”

To see the Assembly's letter in English click here.

Contact Information:

Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops
3331, rue Sherbrooke Est
Montreal, Quebec H1W 1C5

Phone: 514-274-4323
Fax: 514-274-4383

See related coverage:

Vatican: the State Must Respect Parents' Wishes in Religious Education 

Quebec Decision against Exemption from Mandatory Religious Relativism Course under Heavy Fire 

Quebec Coalition Demands Respect for Rights of Parents to Decide Education of Their Children 

Quebec Judge Denies Families Religious Exemption From Mandatory School Course in Relativism