The Ethics and Religious Culture program constitutes the culmination of a long process during which the Québec school system has shifted away from essentially confessional structures and orientations–both Catholic and Protestant–to entirely non-religious structures. This transformation, which is directed toward the emergence of educational institutions that respect the freedom of conscience and religion of all citizens, originated in the education reform of the 1960s, at which time Québec decided to assume full responsibility for its mission regarding public education. The transformation has taken place in increments, taking into account the evolving mentality of the times.
At the turn of the 21st century, decisive factors marked this evolution:
- 1997: Amendment to the Constitution Act removing Québec's obligation to grant privileges to members of the Catholic and Protestant faiths by means of denominational schools
- 1997: Adoption of a law creating linguistic school boards to replace confessional school boards
- 2000: Abolition of confessional structures in the school system, such as confessional committees and deputy minister positions associated with the Catholic and Protestant faiths, as well as the confessional status of schools and the pastoral animation service
- 2005: Adoption of a law that provides for the implementation of a common ethics and religious culture program as of the start of the 2008 school yearnote de bas de page1
In this way, Québec has expressed its intention to complete the process of deconfessionalization of all aspects of the public school system. It also recognizes the importance of religious and ethical questions in the life and evolution of Québec society.
Change and Continuity
Starting in September 2008, the Moral Education and the Catholic and Protestant Moral and Religious Education Instruction courses offered in the schools will be replaced by one common program in ethics and religious culture, which will be mandatory for all students in public and private schools. While maintaining their specificity, both the ethics and the religious culture areas of instruction grant a common place to the practice of dialogue and share the same objectives: the recognition of others and the pursuit of the common good. By joining together in one program instruction in both ethics and religious culture, a certain continuity is ensured since the optional programs already included moral education. However, there is divergence in the way moral education and religious instruction have been conceived up to now.
Firstly, there is a shift from a moral education program that did not include any religious references, but which did develop the practice of moral dialogue and ethical reflection, to an ethics program that takes into account elements related to religious culture. By talking about ethics rather than "morality", emphasis is placed on how students examine the underlying values and norms regarding, in various situations, human behaviour. While endeavouring to form autonomous individuals, capable of exercising their critical judgment, this instruction also has the objective of fostering dialogue and community lifenote de bas de page2 in a pluralist society.
Next, there is a shift from confessional instruction reserved for Catholics and Protestants, albeit instruction which opened a door to cultural and religious diversity, to a common program of instruction in religious culture for all students. This instruction is aimed at an informed understanding of the many forms of religious expression present in Québec society and in the world. It is considered "cultural" because it is aimed at the ability to grasp the field of religion by means of its various forms of expression in time and space. It allows for understanding the signs in which the religious experiences of individuals and groups are conveyed that contribute to shaping society. Moreover, it does not espouse any particular set of beliefs or moral references.
A Change of Orientation
For the purposes of this program, instruction in ethics is aimed at developing an understanding of ethical questions that allows students to make judicious choices based on knowledge of the values and references present in society. The objective is not to propose or impose moral rules, nor to study philosophical doctrines and systems in an exhaustive manner.
Instruction in religious culture, for its part, is aimed at fostering an understanding of several religious traditions whose influence has been felt and is still felt in our society today. In this regard, emphasis will be placed on Québecs religious heritage. The historical and cultural importance of Catholicism and Protestantism will be given particular prominence. The goal is neither to accompany students in a spiritual quest, nor to present the history of doctrines and religions, nor to promote some new common religious doctrine aimed at replacing specific beliefs.
New Demands for Teachers Regarding Their Professional Stance
The implementation of the Ethics and Religious Culture program places new demands on teachers with regard to the professional stance they adopt. Since this subject matter touches upon complex and sometimes delicate personal and family dynamics, teachers have an additional obligation to be discreet and respectful, and to not promote their own beliefs and points of view. However, when an opinion is expressed that attacks a persons dignity or if there is an action that is suggested that compromises the common good, the teacher will intervene by referring to the programs two objectives. The teacher must also cultivate the art of questioning by promoting such values as openness to diversity, respect for convictions, recognition of self and others, and the search for the common good.
Advantages for Students
The Ethics and Religious Culture program offers students from all backgrounds the tools necessary for a better comprehension of our society and its cultural and religious heritage. Students are encouraged to open themselves to the world and to develop their ability to act with others. By grouping all the students together, rather than dividing them into groups according to their beliefs, and by promoting the development of attitudes of tolerance, respect and openness, we are preparing them to live in a pluralist and democratic society.
1 In order to ensure a smooth transition, this law extends, for a period of three years, recourse to notwithstanding clauses that allow for waiving the application of those sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to which these clauses refer. Fin de la note(Back to text)