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“The Christ-haunted South.” Flannery O’Connor’s phrase came to mind, said a friend, upon reading this report from UPI:

“Unconsecrated communion wafers are growing in popularity as a snack food throughout Quebec, alongside potato chips and popcorn on supermarket shelves.

“The paper-thin morsels made from flour and water hark back to when Quebec was one of the most devout Roman Catholic enclaves in North America and the wafers were seen only at holy communion.

“Gaston Bonneau, one of the two major commercial producers in Quebec, told the Toronto Globe & Mail newspaper his business started with just himself and his wife in the mid-1980s. Now it’s grown to 16 employees and he plans to automate production.

“‘My son can eat a whole bag while he’s watching TV,’ said supermarket manager Paul Saumure. ‘He’s had more of them outside of church than he ever did inside one.’”

Christ-haunted Quebec? Maybe so, but there are important differences. In the South, preoccupation with Christ took and takes a multitude of forms from the admirable to the bizarre: gentle community caring in the everyday, blind men claiming to be John the Baptist or Jesus, Bible-prophecy enthusiasms about the End Time, big business mega-church empire building.

In Quebec, the specter is the Catholic Church that once was and, it is feared, may be again. Centuries of caesaropapism resulted in a collaboration between Church, state, and culture so thorough that it was hardly possible to distinguish one from the other. Then young turks, including future prime minister Pierre Trudeau, collaborated with bishops and priests, who were inspired by “the spirit” of Vatican II, to overthrow the ancien regime .

The result was a “secularization” of Quebec that proceeded with stunning rapidity. The pace and scope of change was comparable only to what happened in the Netherlands in the 1960s and 70s, and perhaps to what is now happening in Ireland.

Couch potatoes munching on communion hosts reflects not so much a Christ-haunted as a Church-haunted culture, although of course the two are not separable. Gaston Bonneau is capitalizing on the “edginess” that flirts with blasphemy, taunting the specter of Old Quebec, almost daring it to try and make a return.

The sadness is that the church leadership in Quebec, with few exceptions, is guilt-ridden about what it views as its collaborationist past and accepts its cultural exile as punishment fully deserved. In his months as pope, Benedict has repeatedly declared the Church’s support for authentically secular government, meaning government that attends to the temporal (which is the meaning of secular), and respects the most basic of human rights, the freedom of religion to engage personally and publicly, privately and corporately, the transcendent and eternal by which we understand our little moment in time.

In many places, and not least in this country, this understanding of the authentically secular is little understood. That, as I wrote here , was vividly brought to mind in my recent visit in Spain where the Church and a socialist government bent on creating a naked public square are in bitter conflict. And so it is that in Quebec, Ireland, Spain, and elsewhere people munch on communion hosts, warding off the ghosts of caesaropapisms past, and not knowing what to do about their hunger.

In the February issue of F IRST T HINGS , which will be in the mail in a couple of weeks, I have an extended reflection on “Gays and the Priesthood,” occasioned by the recent instruction issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education. There I examine the instruction and reactions to it, including very explicit rejections not only of the congregation’s directives but also of magisterial teaching about human sexuality, and homosexuality in particular. It is possible that this is building toward a crucial testing of the still-young pontificate of Benedict XVI.

Meanwhile, many others are puzzling, sometimes with palpable impatience, about where this pontificate intends to lead the Church. The following is by Robert Mickens, writing in the London-based magazine, The Tablet :

But now as the world gets set to ring in 2006, many people are wondering if the new calendar year will be the point at which Benedict XVI resolves to stop being the caretaker of the John Paul II legacy and sets about putting his own mark on the papacy. One thing is for certain: he will have the opportunity to do so in the coming months when he issues his first encyclical, creates a dozen or more new cardinals, and makes two or three journeys around Europe.

And there is still the expectation that the Pope will eventually begin making changes to the Vatican bureaucracy. As far as an overall programme for his pontificate, Pope Benedict has only said that it is "not to do [his] own will" and "not to emanate many documents". But in what may be his most important speech so far (on December 22 to Roman Curia officials) he outlined what most closely approaches his agenda: to motivate the Church to develop the "dialogue between reason and faith … with great open-mindedness," based on the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Benedict XVI will have been Bishop of Rome for nearly nine months when his first encyclical letter is finally issued some time in January. Though many people have become mercilessly impatient with the wait, they should remember that even though the first three popes of the past century (Leo XIII, St Pius X and Benedict XV) issued their introductory encyclicals within two months of assuming the papacy, Pope Paul VI only published his 14 months after his election. The five months it took Pope John Paul II to produce his first encyclical in 1979 is, only relatively, fresher in memory. While these popes used their first encyclicals to outline the programme of their pontificates, Vatican officials who have seen Pope Benedict’s letter say he does not do so.

The question is not whether Benedict will be the “caretaker” of the John Paul the Great legacy. He has said he wants to see to it that the great teaching initiatives of his predecessor are truly received—as in effectively communicated and implemented—in the life of the Church. That is an agenda not for a caretaking but a transforming pontificate.

In addition to which :

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