Raymond Gravel, R.I.P.

by Michael Potemra

Conservative Catholics in the United States frequently bemoan what they perceive as the excessive liberalism of their Church in this country. I have been consoling them for years with the assurance that they have it easy, compared with their coreligionists in our neighbor to the north, and especially in the province of Quebec. La Belle Province, as recently as 60 years ago, was a stronghold of conservative Catholicism, in which the Catholic Church wielded a great deal of clout in political affairs — but, as tends to happen in places where religion has too much power in the secular sphere, a reaction set in that was ferociously anticlerical. In Quebec, the Church responded by veering left.

Consider this news-service story, headlined “Canadians pack Quebec cathedral for funeral of Father Raymond Gravel.” It begins: “St. Charles Borromeo Cathedral was packed as Bishop Gilles Lussier and several priests concelebrated the funeral of Father Raymond Gravel, an outspoken social activist and advocate for Quebec independence.” And it goes on to describe how the late Father Gravel, who had been an elected member of Canada’s Parliament for two years, was loaded with honors in death as he had been in life. Internet homages flowed; politicians and journalists praised him; the mayor of Montreal ordered the city’s flag to be flown at half-staff. (He had been a chaplain to firefighters; even before his death the firefighters had named a building in his honor.)

While he declared his personal opposition to abortion, Father Gravel was an outspoken advocate of abortion rights, and publicly excoriated Quebec’s (and Canada’s) primate, Marc Cardinal Ouellet, for defending the Catholic Church’s position on abortion. In an op-ed in the newspaper Le Trait d’Union, Gravel pointed out that 94 percent of Quebecers disagreed with the cardinal. This latter fact illustrates what I was saying above about the religious and cultural changes in Quebec over the past half-century. It also makes me bristle at the comment of a Radio Canada journalist quoted in the wire-service story: “Raymond said out loud the things that many Quebecers thought but didn’t dare express.” Yes, saying out loud what 94 percent of one’s fellow citizens believe really makes one a profile in courage. This demonstrates perfectly, though, the reactionary-anticlericalist mindset: They are standing up bravely against a foe that was vanquished decades ago, and now exists purely in their imagination — as a bogeyman whose threats justify unthinking adherence to politically correct doctrine.

That’s enough squawking on my part; I have already come too close to violating the spirit as well as the letter of de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Raymond Gravel was a complicated man: In what proved to be the twilight of his years, he simultaneously supported Quebec’s historic euthanasia law . . . and opposed the government’s controversial and highly secular Charter of Values. He had had a rough start in life — as a young man, he was a gay prostitute in Montreal — and he did have a prophetic passion for the unprivileged and the outcasts of society. One wishes he had exercised this passion more evenly, and included within its boundaries the unborn whose lives are threatened. Dead at 61; R.I.P.