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Catholicism and crisis : l'Ecole Sociale Populaire and the depression in Quebec Frigon, F.J.

Abstract

The purpose of this thesis is to determine how a group of socially-concerned French-speaking Catholics grouped around l'Ecole Sociale Populaire or E.S.P. of Montreal reacted to the depression. Their importance lay in the fact that they were charged with the task of adapting the Church's organization and teachings to Quebec's changing socio-economic structure. As a result, they had developed by 1930 a network of interlocking organizations and relationships in Quebec and in Europe. The fund of ideas and experiences which the E.S.P. accumulated thereby was disseminated amongst French Canadian elite groups largely through the medium of monthly pamphlets. Thus, when the depression struck and made Montreal, of Canada's urban regions, one of its chief victims, the members of the E.S.P. were put to the test. The misery and insecurity engendered by the collapse of the economic system stimulated a demand for viable solutions and for action. An examination of the pamphlets published by the E.S.P. between 1930 to 1940 indicates that its members were slow in perceiving the causes and effects of the depression. Yet the E.S.P. was quick to mount a campaign to stop the growth, especially in Quebec, of Communism and, for a time, of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Nevertheless, the E.S.P.'s pamphlets reveal that as time went on an increasingly serious split developed amongst its members primarily over the attitude Catholics should adopt towards the existing socio-economic system. The E.S.P.'s programme for dealing with the depression manifested an ambiguous attitude towards the state. On one hand, there seemed to be a fear of too much state intervention and, on the other, there was an acknowledgement that only the state could deal quickly and effectively with the problems created by the depression. Equally important, many members of the E.S.P. favoured long-term structural reforms such as a return to self-sufficient agriculture through a programme of colonization rather than immediate ones. Later, the E.S.P. was to embrace but not with equal fervour the Catholic concept of corporatism as the long-range solution. Another factor which shaped the E.S.P.'s response to the depression was the tendency of its members to consider all proposals and activities primarily in terms of combatting Communism and Socialism. In evaluating their accomplishments, some members of the E.S.P. came to realize that they had enjoyed less than complete success. They appeared to have been most disappointed with the colonization programme and most satisfied with the anti-Communist campaign. A personal assessment of the E.S.P.'s efforts finds its commitment to social justice and to pluralism within the Church to have been its most attractive features. The most unattractive aspect of the E.S.P.'s publications was the tendency on the part of its authors to subordinate all values to the maintenance and expansion of the Church's influence and organization. This tendency helps to explain why the E.S.P.'s proposals and activities did not give due consideration to the mass misery created by the depression and to the power wielded by the economic elite. In turn, this conclusion helps to explain why the E.S.P. did not have a greater impact at this time. Nevertheless the depression seems to have given birth to new conceptions of the role of the Church and of its members. With time these new ideas were to bring about a drastic alteration in the form and substance of the Church.

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