The Fight Over Father Levesque

BLAIR FRASER July 1 1950

The Fight Over Father Levesque

BLAIR FRASER July 1 1950

The Fight Over Father Levesque


A top-level storm is raging in Quebec around the jolly monk on the Massey Commission who is seen by some as a shining symbol of freedom, attacked by others as a most dangerous radical


IN VANCOUVER a few months ago the Chancellor of the University of British Columbia entertained at dinner the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. As reported on the social page it must have sounded like a pretty stuffy evening.

Actually guests remember it as one of the jolliest they ever spent; everybody sang folk songs in English and French until the small hours. Centre and soul of its gaiety was a rather short, rather stout Dominican monk—the Very Rev. Georges-Henri Lévesque, dean of social sciences at Laval University in Quebec City and French Canada’s representative on the Massey Commission.

He was playing an ancient fiddle which had only one string. It hadn’t been played for 50 years, but it was good enough to lead an impromptu concert of folk songs. Good enough also to demonstrate Father Lévesque’s talent not only for music, but for being the life of the party. He’d been performing that function all the way across Canada.

You wouldn’t have thought, to look at him, that he’s a centre of red-hot controversy in his native Quebec—idolized by liberal youth as the very symbol of freedom and social progress; damned by the extreme Right as little better than a Communist. The Duplessis Government has used every kind of pressure on Laval University to fire him; ultra-conservatives in the Quebec clergy have twice carried their war against him to the Vatican itself. For 15 years he has been a leader, and lately perhaps the leader, in a battle within the Roman Catholic Church that may yet change the social pattern of Quebec.

You wouldn’t have thought, either, that he’s a member of a rather austere monastic order (Dominicans observe a partial fast each year from September 14 to Easter). Father Lévesque has been a member of that community since he was 20; even as a boy he had no other ambition. Yet the first impression he makes is one of jollity.

It’s a slightly misleading impression. Lévesque is a merry fellow, a born raconteur with a fathomless fund of stories, a good companion; but he’s no mere funmaker. Colleagues have found him a singularly valuable member of the Massey Commission. His facility in both languages, his grasp of the basic problems of Canadian culture, his ability to put penetrating questions and bring out the heart of the matter have impressed everybody. He also does a good job for national unity by the unusual Continued on page 52

Continued on page 52

The Fight Over Father Levesque

Continued from page 5

method of taking it for granted.

“I don’t remember Father Levesque ever using the phrase ‘national unity,’ ” an ex-student said. “He never talked about bonne entente or any of those old cliches. But once you adopt his attitude on things in general, especially on social questions, you find yourself really working for national unity in a practical way—co-operating with other Canadians.”

Levesque and his friends believe it’s the urgent duty of the Christian church to identify itself with social reform. They accept the judgment of Pope Pius XI: “The great scandal of the 19th century was that the church lost the working class.” By practical work in rural co-operatives and urban labor unions they’re trying to recapture that lost ground.

He Has Formidable Enemies

They’ve had a lot of success. Quebec’s co-operative movement was tiny, poor, and riven by faction when Father Lévesque established a Superior Council of Co-operation in 1939. Now its 2,255 units have a total membership of 925,000, assets of more than $300 millions. In some of the poorer villages the co-ops have brought new life to local industries. They have taught farmers better production methods, brought in all kinds of consumer goods, generally given an economic blood transfusion to the community.

Quebec’s own labor unions, the Catholic Syndicates, have not only multiplied in size but have become militant instead of docile; they now co-operate rather than compete with the international unions. Lévesque and his school have been a major inspiration in all this growth. His graduates hold a dozen key jobs in the syndicates, a dozen more in the co-ops.

But Lévesque and his movement have formidable enemies in politics, where the Powers That Be resent suggestions that their regime could be improved; in the church, where a powerful conservative bloc distrusts any change whatever. From both quarters the Lévesque group is under heavy attack. It is fighting for its life at this moment, with the odds apparently against it.

For some time the Duplessis Govern-

ment has been putting financial pressure on Laval University to have Father Lévesque fired. In Laval’s recent campaign for funds the Provincial Government promised a donation of $4 millions. On opening night Premier Duplessis presented a cheque for $2 millions. “You’ll get the rest later,” he said. Duplessis himself made no stipulation, but party henchmen say quite openly, “Laval will get the other $2 millions when they fire Lévesque.”

In private Duplessis calls the social science faculty “thore Communists.” Last February he attacked them publicly before the Laval school of commerce. “They say you’re to be affiliated to the social science faculty,” said the Premier. “For the love of God and good sense, don’t do that. Stay by yourselves and avoid the errors of others.”

Later Duplessis told Msgr. Ferdinand Vandry, rector of Laval, that the grant to the social science faculty would be cut from $50,000 to $25,000.

Vandry refused to be bullied. Soon after the Premier’s attack he took occasion to express warm praise of Lévesque and the social science faculty. But since then a new crisis has arisen.

On April 25 Father Lévesque spoke briefly to the Congress of Industrial Relations, a conference of workers and employers, and warned them against “letting anti-Communism become a soporific, or a mere tom-tom for election campaigns.”

“We will never establish social justice by mere speeches,” he said. "Only positive acts of reform in the social and economic structure of our society can save us from the dictatorship of the proletariat The true anti-Com-

munists are those who build the new society with justice and love.” That was the policy of his faculty, and ‘‘nothing shall stop us, neither slanders nor threats, no matter whence they

Foes Within the Church

Back in 1934, when I/évesque was a very young professor at the Dominican College in Ottawa, he made almost the same speech. The Tase heres u (Liberal) Government was then in power in Quebec, and Opposition leader Maurice Duplessis was delighted.

In 1Ô50 the situation is different. The address caused a sensation. Even though it mentioned no names it was taken as a direct and Hhrewd attack on

the Duplessis regime. Father Levesque received an immediate reprimand from the university, so harsh that it seemed designed to provoke his resignation.

He was informed in very blunt terms that he’d already cost the university $25,000 and seemed likely to cost it a good deal more. Levesque’s first impulse was to resign and perhaps carry on his work outside the university altogether. Most of his staff were prepared to go with him. But his friends advised him, and his superiors in the Dominican Order virtually commanded him, to stay and fight it out.

Whether he can win is still an open question. When I saw Msgr. Vandry a month ago he hadn’t made up his mind what to do. There appeared to be no doubt that until Lévesque was removed, pressure on the university would be intense. On the other hand, Laval is an ancient and revered institution, unaccustomed to coercion. Also, Lévesque has some friends unlikely to be intimidated by Duplessis—one of them is the Prime Minister of Canada.

Meanwhile, though, foes within the church were pressing the attack in another direction; they’re carrying the fight to Rome. A few months ago a friend of mine in Montreal saw one draft of an indictment against Lévesque. He wasn’t told its source, but he understood it was being prepared by certain Jesuits and some of the more conservative bishops—a belief since confirmed by several other sources.

One thing was particularly interesting: The draft contained many

quotations, not only from Lévesque’s published writings, but from lectures given to classes at Laval. His professors are firmly convinced that certain students are being paid to spy on the faculty in general and on Lévesque in particular.

Why this concentrated assault? And why should it come just now?

It’s part of the reaction in Quebec from the situation of just a year ago—a reaction so violent that it now amounts to a reversal.

Why Was Charbonneau Fired?

This time last year, with the settlement of the five-and-a-half-month strike at Asbestos, Que., the so-called “Leftists” in the Quebec clergy appeared to have won a decisive victory over the forces of the extreme Right, both secular and clerical. All the Canadien bishops had rallied, however different their reasons might be, behind the Asbestos strikers and against the Duplessis Government. (The strike was illegal under Quebec law because the men did not wait for arbitration. Also, though it was orderly during most of its course, it developed at one point into the most violently riotous outbreak Quebec had ever seen.)

Leader in this pro-labor, anti-Duplessis swing was Msgr. Joseph Charbonneau, Archbishop of Montreal. It was he who said, from the pulpit of Notre Dame Church: “There’s a

conspiracy to destroy the working class and it’s the church’s duty to intervene.” It was he who, with Archbishop Roy, of Quebec, organized church-door collections for relief of the strikers—a province-wide operation that brought in $167,558, about one third of what the strike cost the Asbestos workers.

And so it was a clear and sensational sign that a reaction had set in when, last winter, Msgr. Charbonneau was summarily dismissed. Ostensibly he “retired for reasons of health”—that’s what Msgr. Antoniutti, the Apostolic Delegate in Ottawa, told the Press. In Victoria, B.C., Charbonneau himself told reporters that he felt fine. “And

out here,” he added, “I’m among friends.”

It is not true, as the Union Nationale unwisely boasted, that “Duplessis sent a couple of his ministers to Rome and got Charbonneau fired.” Labor Minister Antonio Barrette and the Minister of Health J. H. A. Paquette did go to Rome for the opening of the Holy Year and did have a brief audience with Pope Pius XII but they didn’t even mention Charbonneau. The man who carried the indictment against Charbonneau to Rome was no layman but a fellow bishop, Msgr. Georges Courchesne, the elderly and ultra-conservative Bishop of Rim-

By all accounts it was a pretty inclusive set of charges; 128 pages long, according to the gossip in Quebec. Few outsiders know exactly what was in it and no outsider knows exactly why the Vatican acted on its recommendation and dismissed Archbishop Charbonneau. But there seems to be general agreement that the main points against him were:

1. He was not a good administrator. Even his best friends admit this—sometimes he didn’t even answer his mail.

2. His relations with the other bishops, except Roy, were less than cordial.

3. By his support of the Asbestos strikers he put the church in the position of condoning a defiance of law.

4. His hostility to the Duplessis Government had become so open that, in his archdiocese, relations between civil and ecclesiastical authorities were virtually severed. (This is the grain of truth, if any, in the Union Nationale boast that “Duplessis got Charbonneau fired.”)

5. There may also have been an element of the same kind of pressure that’s exercised against Lévesque at Laval. Charbonneau was Chancellor of the University of Montreal. It was generally believed in Montreal that the university would have a much easier time getting provincial grants if it had a new chancellor. A new setup for administration of the university, vigorously opposed by Charbonneau, has been adopted since his removal from

6. Charbonneau regards activities like the co-operatives and trade unions as “non-confessional.” He was a very active friend of the labor movement and he kept in close touch not only with the Catholic Syndicates but with international union leaders as well. He often conferred with both groups at once, in his office at the archbishop’s Palace. To the Canadien Jesuits and the conservative bishops this was a major heresy.

This last point, the dispute over “confessionality,” is the one that involves Lévesque. He had nothing to do with the Asbestos strike, though some of his professors were active in it. Lévesque himself, during the critical closing weeks, was in Europe addressing the Semaine Sociale de France (he’s the only Canadian ever invited to address that distinguished sociological conference). But in the “confessionality” fight Lévesque has played a major

Five years ago he wrote a pamphlet about it—a quiet careful theological argument to show that a practical organization like a co-operative could be “non-confessional” (i.e., could include people of all faiths working together) without being “neutral” in the technical sense condemned by the Pope. To a Protestant it seems an innocent academic discourse but in Quebec it raised a terrific fuss. The Jesuits took the issue all the way to Rome, trying to have the pamphlet censored and Lévesque rebuked. The

attack failed; Rome took no action.

But the issue has not been allowed to die. It is still the main charge against Lévesque from his clerical foes.

This may sound like a purely academic dispute. It isn’t; it has very practical effects.

Against Lévesque are all the men who want Quebec to stay exactly as it is or, still better, as it was 50 years ago; for him, the men who believe change is imminent and overdue. Against Lévesque are those who regard Ottawa as a foreign capital, who are obsessed with “autonomy” and isolation; for him, those who prefer to be Canadians without a hyphen. Against him are that great majority of the Quebec clergy whose sympathies lay with Vichy (some of them are still petitioning Ottawa to give sanctuary to the Axis collaborator de Bernonville).

Lévesque was one of the few men in Quebec City and, I believe, the only clergyman openly allied with the Free French during the war.

Emotions run high in this division. To his supporters Father Lévesque is becoming a symbol of social progress and intellectual liberation.

“If they get Lévesque it’ll be a far worse defeat for us than the Charbonneau affair,” a Quebec journalist said.

It’s hard to put your finger on why this quiet soft-voiced monk has come to be such a focus of loyalty and of enmity. His career is full of scholastic distinction, but you wouldn’t think it the stuff of controversy.

He was born 47 years ago in Roberval, Lake St. John County, fourth child and second son in a family of 15. He was christened Albert—GeorgesHenri is his name “in religion,” which he took when he entered the Dominican novitiate in 1923.

Young Albert went to school in Roberval, to classical college in Chicoutimi. As soon as he got his B.A. he entered the Dominican Order, graduated from the Dominican College in 1930 and spent two more years at the University of Lille, France, taking a degree in social science. He came back to teach economic philosophy at the college of his order in Ottawa after traveling a good bit in Europe and taking a deep interest in the European co-operative movements.

Later he held the same chair at the University of Montreal and at Laval. For a while he had the three jobs at once and shuttled about the three cities in three-month intervals.

Then in 1938, at the invitation of the late Cardinal Villeneuve, he founded the Laval faculty of social sciences, took up residence in the Dominican Monastery at Quebec, and settled into the calm but extraordinarily crowded routine that he still observes.

“It’s Not Always Sabbath”

Rising bell in the Dominican Order goes at 5.45, for morning recitations in the chapel at 6. Because he has so much night work (he’s out at meetings three or four nights a week) Lévesque has special permission to skip this and sleep in until 6.30. At that hour he gets up, takes a cold shower and is dressed in time for his own morning prayers from 7 to 7.30. That is his preparation for the celebration of mass at 7.30, and other devotions for the next hour.

At 8.30, breakfast. The 30 monks and 10 brothers in the Quebec monastery take it cafeteria-style in the refectory, each coming in at his own time. They take only toast and coffee and the meal lasts about 10 minutes. Then each retires to his own room for the morning’s work.

In Lévesque'a case this means a long

session with his private secretary, who is also a professor in the social sciences faculty. (It’s a mild embarrassment to both that the secretary’s name is Doris Lussier—they like it to be made clear that Doris is a man.) Lussier sits down on one side of the big double desk that half fills the room and they work together until the chapel bell at 11.45, a special service each day before the noon meal.

After lunch, half an hour’s recreation. “We have a lot of fun,” one member of the community said. “It’s not always Sabbath here.”

Most of them play cards; they have some keen bridge players and lately they’ve taken up canasta. They leave the recreation hall at 1.30 for another hour’s rest alone, or to walk in Battlefields Park or on the terrace on the monastery roof.

Lévesque then leaves for his office at the university, where in term time he spends every afternoon. Most of the time goes to interviews with students and professors; his own work, lectures and speeches and magazine articles and correspondence he gets done in the mornings at the monastery.

The dean himself takes only one class nowadays, a course called “La morale et la technique de l’action.” It’s more easily understood than translated. One of his students once suggested an English title: “How to

scheme virtuously.”

“A Real Belief In Freedom”-

Lévesque gets back late to the monastery, too late usually for the chapel service that precedes the evening meal. After supper there’s another half hour in the recreation hall, evening devotions from 7.30 to 8, and from then on everyone is free to do his homework. For Lévesque that usually means reading. He tries to keep up each day with the New York Times, The Times, London (air mail edition), Le Monde, of Paris, and two or three weekly magazines, as well as the pile of technical and learned publications on the corner of his bookcase.

All this applies to the evening’s he’s at home. Half the time he’s out at meetings. Either way his day ends at at midnight or later. He averages six hours’ sleep and seems to thrive on it.

It’s a hard busy life though scarcely that of a fire-eating radical. According to his friends, Lévesque’s speeches and writings, which are not voluminous, can be documented as orthodox Catholic doctrine. He is not only in good standing but in high favor with his own

Yet from the moment he opened his school it’s been an object of suspicion and hostility. “Lévesque’s graduates will be either unemployed or revolutionaries,” was a catch phrase of 1938. The same gibe is still current. A Duplessis man told me, “lévesque can’t find jobs for his graduates, because the school has such a bad name.”

This charge has never been true. Only two of the faculty’s 176 graduates are now unemployed—for personal reasons. Ten are employed by the Duplessis Government itself, and one of the 10 was hired only during the past year.

It isn’t even true that Lévesque graduates form a bloc of any kind. More of them are working in industry, finance and journalism, and in the federal or provincial civil service, than in the co-operatives and the labor movement.

“Lévesque has no disciples,” un exstudent told me. “He doesn’t impose any doctrine. “You’ll find men who admire lévesque but who disagree violently with each other. The unique thing about lévesque is that he really

believes in freedom of thought—he lets you have your own ideas.”

But freedom of thought tends to lead to desire for change and in that sense Lévesque has been a “revolutionary” influence. A Quebec judge told me, “I have two sons, both lawyers; neither ever studied under lévesque. But to them he is a wonderful man, a great liberating force. He says things which they think, but which alone they might have been afraid to say. They’d be afraid somebody would call them socialists. Now they can say, ‘Well, that’s what the Very Rev. Father Lévesque thinks, and if he’s a socialist, so am I.’ ”

One reason for the Duplessis Government’s quarrel with Lévesque is that he accepted membership on the Massey Commission. Premier Duplessis has declined to recognize the commission on constitutional grounds; he says “culture” is part of “education,” and education is a provincial and not a federal field. Lévesque’s membership was a snub, aggravated by the fact that all Quebec’s nationalist societies, both Canadien universities and the . Catholic hierarchy in Canada, have all recognized the commission and taken part in its hearings. They seem to share Lévesque’s opinion that formal education is one thing and a general Canadian culture quite another.

You could reduce lévesque’s position to three general principles: a belief in intellectual freedom; a desire for social reform; an all-Canadian as distinct from a parochial patriotism. One or more of those three is at the root of all his conflicts.

Just now the conflict appears to have reached a crisis. By the time this article appears Lévesque may already be the ex-dean of social sciences. On the other hand, the tide may have turned in his favor - the same “swing of the pendulum” which has so altered the Quebec situation in the past year. The counter-swing may already have reached its limits. There are some tangible grounds for thinking so.

Archbishop Charbonneau’s dismissal, for instance, had some very disturbing effects. Whatever his shortcomings as an administrator Charbonneau is a man of great heart and liberal mind. Quebec workers regarded him as a firm friend. After he was fired many of them used exactly the same words in their comment to a syndicate organizer: “I guess he was too much on our side.”

A loyal and devout Catholic said to me: “If they fire lévesque, too, I really will begin to believe that Duplessis is running the church in this province.”

That’s probably the best of reasons for thinking they won't fire him. if