French Canadians have the habit of easy and quick canonization. After Claude Ryan’s death on Feb. 9, the whole nation praised the journalist and politician, from Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte of Montreal to Quebec Premier Jean Charest. Many journalists participated, particularly from Le Devoir. Even the PQ leader, Bernard Landry, and the former PQ leader, Lucien Bouchard, were at the funeral. There was complete unanimity, with the exception of the radical separatist film-maker Pierre Falardeau, whose movies are financed by Canadian taxpayers’ money. Falardeau insulted Ryan for his Catholic faith and his federalism. He concluded his letter, published in the Bloc Quebecois-subsidized newspaper Le Quebecois: “Claude Ryan takes in his casket his provincial and criminal political thought. So long, filth!”
Falardeau’s letter is motivated by hatred. Ryan deserves much more than that, but his itinerary as a Catholic intellectual is not necessarily perfect. In fact, we could say that he was a liberal Catholic intellectual. This kind of Catholicism was condemned with vigour by Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century and by Pope Pius XII in the 20th century. Claude Ryan strongly favoured the separation of church and state, even though he recognized the former as one “interlocutor” among others in the public arena. This is why he always supported the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. As general secretary of Catholic Action in Quebec in the 1950s, he was transfixed by the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity and secularization which were promoted by Pierre Trudeau’s Cité libre. This publication was influenced by the left-wing and personalist French journal Esprit, founded by the “Catholic” communist thinker, Emmanuel Mounier.
With this liberal Catholic mentality, Ryan was weak in the 1970s as the editor of Le Devoir toward the abortionist Henry Morgentaler, who was illegally killing babies in the eastern part of Montreal. Ryan supported the first condemnation of the abortionist by the courts in 1974, but he was not sure about his second acquittal in 1975. “The question of abortion is among those questions upon which there is no consensus anymore. We must ask if finally the respect of life would not be better served by a legislative decision that would erase from the Criminal Code the measures on abortion. The laws about abortion have usually followed the general state of morality and opinions. Where the beliefs change, it is difficult to maintain the same laws.”
After the third acquittal of Morgentaler in September 1976, he is even clearer in his opposition to the law that restricted abortion. “It is the current law that does not work,” he wrote. He also opened his pages to pro-abortion doctors and activists and Le Devoir was generally pro-Morgentaler, despite the fact that it was still considered a Catholic paper to some extent.
In the last years before his death, Ryan was worried about the low birthrate in Quebec, but was at the same time opposed to any “crusade against abortion.” (This is the expression he used when I asked him his opinion about the omnibus bill after Pierre Trudeau’s funeral). In his political legacy, he wrote that he hoped that the Quebec people would follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, “particularly with respect for the sacred character of life.” His silence about this teaching throughout his political career is rather strange. At the same time, we can understand that his liberalism was very useful to have for such a successful career in an apostate society.
While he was minister of education in Robert Bourassa’s government, the secularization of the school boards that he supported was reprehensible from a Christian perspective. It led, a few years later, to the complete secularization of all Christian public schools in Quebec, whereas he was pretending to save them with the naïve Quebec bishops. There is now not a single Christian public school in Quebec. Where was Ryan’s prudence about this question?