Benoît Lacroix (born Joachim Lacroix), OC, GOQ,Dominican priest, theologian, philosopher, medievalist, historian, literary critic and university professor (born 8 September 1915 in Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse, Québec; died 2 March 2016 in Montréal, Québec).
Early Years and Education
Born into a farming family, Joachim Lacroix studied the classical curriculum at the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1936. That same year, he entered the Dominican Novitiate in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. He was ordained a Dominican priest on 5 July 1941. Upon entering the Dominican order, he took the name Benoît in honour of Benoît XI (1240–1304), a Dominican pope of the Middle Ages. Lacroix obtained a master’s degree in theology from the University of Ottawa in 1941 and a doctorate in medieval studies from the University of Toronto in 1951. He did postdoctoral studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in 1953, and then at Harvard University, under a Guggenheim Fellowship, from 1959 to 1960.
Lacroix then went on to teach at several universities, both in Québec and overseas. For 40 years, from 1945 to 1985, he taught at the Institut d’études médiévales (Institute of Medieval Studies) at the Université de Montréal, where he served as director from 1963 to 1969 and became professor emeritus in 1981. He was also a visiting professor at the universities of Kyoto (Japan), Butare (Rwanda), and Caen (France). In 1969, he founded the Centre d’études des religions populaires (centre for the study of popular religions), located in the Convent of Saint Albert in Montréal. This centre organized numerous symposiums and produced many publications about the relationship between religiosity and popular folklore in Québec and Canada; it closed in 1994.
Lacroix was also a member of the editorial board overseeing the Classiques canadiens collection published by Les Éditions Fides of Montréal (1955–72), founding editor of the collection Vie des lettres canadiennes from Les Presses de l’Université Laval (1956–75), founder of the historical journal Cahiers d’histoire du Québec au XXe siècle (1993), co-founder of the Cahiers de Saint-Denys Garneau collection (1996), and founding member, along with Fernand Dumont, of the Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture (Québec institute for research on culture). Lacroix also published a few illustrated books of fantasy fiction (Le P’tit train, Les Cloches,Marie de Saint-Michel).
Priesthood and Activism
In the 1940s, as a young Dominican priest, Benoît Lacroix wanted to become a missionary and, to this end, had planned to go study the Roman Catholic liturgy in Europe. But the Second World War intervened. Instead, he concentrated his work as a priest and an activist in Québec. Like a number of his fellow Dominicans, he discreetly pursued reform both in the Catholic Church and in Québec society, becoming one of the most active contributors to the progressive Catholic journal Maintenant. (Maintenant was the successor to the Revue dominicaine, which ceased publication in 1962; Maintenant itself ceased publication in 1974.) Lacroix subsequently became a medievalist and devoted his time to teaching at universities.
Lacroix was very proud of his strict Dominican vocation, even though the Dominican Order had a reputation for austerity and severity, not to say rigidity and intransigence (Dominicans had played a leading role in the Spanish Inquisition). But his order’s problematic historical reputation never prevented Father Lacroix from being a free thinker. He always closely embraced the values that were ultimately endorsed by the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II): progressivism, modernism, pluralism and openness to reasoned criticism of the Church’s traditional practices.
In 1981, Lacroix stepped down from university teaching, in hope of leaving the ivory tower and drawing closer to people in a less scholarly way. In his various roles as an author, religious-group leader, spiritual guide, preacher, communicator, visiting professor and consultant, his Christian humanist orientation made him a constant advocate for modern social advances. He condemned narrow ideologies and rigid systems. Especially toward the end of his life, his philosophical orientation positioned him very close to adherents of progressive theologies. In his last book, Rumeurs à l’aube (2015), he wrote: “I like changes. They ensure that the future will endure. Yes, we have entered into the era of change. Should we be worried? Not very. Change ensures and re-ensures endurance. What does not change does not endure and must one day disappear. Change, on the contrary, is the act of becoming, an act of being.”
The most original idea that the medievalist Benoît Lacroix left to modern Québec society is that historically, prior to the Quiet Revolution, the French-speaking populace of Québec had never experienced the full intellectual consequences of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Conquered by the British in 1760, they just missed the philosophical ferment stirred up by the Encyclopedists from 1751 to 1772 and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Instead, Québec’s francophone peasantry then endured two centuries of Ultramontanism from the Church while labouring under the British colonial yoke. According to Lacroix, this intellectual isolation kept Québec’s peasantry in a near-medieval state of mind, especially in terms of popular religion. One of the most negative consequences of this humble religiosity, in his view, was a sharp divide between the rural peasant masses and the values and priorities of the institutional clergy.
With such anthropological and ethnological insights, Father Lacroix advanced the kind of priestly activism that contributed to Vatican II. In works such as La religion de mon père (My Father’s Religion)and La foi de ma mère (My Mother’s Faith), he argued that the people must rediscover and reinvest themselves in their religion, returning to the authentic rhythms of the soil from which it springs. He saw popular religiosity not as an “opiate” but as a “leaven.” Clear-eyed and observant, he also raised the question of whether popular religion in Québec had historically been a tool of oppression or of liberation. He offered no answer to this sweeping question, leaving his own thoughts on it subtly unresolved, while clearly conveying that it represented one of his greatest philosophical concerns.
Benoît Lacroix‘s intellectual legacy is also felt in the fields of literary criticism and history. In collaboration with Jacques Brault, he produced the monumental critical edition of the complete works of the avant-garde poet Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau. In the field of Québec history, his precise, methodical efforts led to the publication of the previously unavailable journal and correspondence of the controversial figure Father Lionel Groulx. Lacroix published many other works on Groulx, but given Lacroix’s progressive, critical views, they were far from hagiographies. A late arrival to the historian’s profession, he offered an assessment of Groulx grounded more in ringing slogans and ardent rhetoric than in rigorous historiographic methodology or quantitative data.
In his work as a communicator and media figure, Lacroix, with his soothing voice, easy manner, and critical eloquence, conveyed a humanist philosophy open to the religious and intellectual diversity of the world. From 1987 to 2010, he published editorials in the Montréal daily newspaper Le Devoir every Christmas and Easter, subtly combining spirituality with a contemporary eye. A natural communicator, he appeared on numerous television programs until very late in life, always expressing himself in engagingly simple, effective language. In his later years, he increasingly adopted the stance of a simple observer of history, an ordinary, informed citizen rather than an academic historian or a man of letters. He discreetly punctured a number of historical myths. Duplessis, the Great Darkness, the Quiet Revolution, the nationalist renewal under René Lévesque — he had seen them all in his daily life, through the short end of the telescope. Although he viewed each of these historic moments as having contributed to renewal and invention, he also believed that shallow, pamphleteering criticism of the preceding phase of history was not an option, because it did not reflect what he had actually seen and lived through. Giving due credit to each phase of progress is a constant in the thoughts and words of Benoît Lacroix, philosopher and communicator.
In 1986, the Université de Montréal founded the Benoît Lacroix Student Centre, which provides ecumenical pastoral services to the student body. In September 2000, the Regional County Municipality of Bellechasse, including the village of Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse where Lacroix was born, honoured him as one of its greatest native sons. In 2008, the village library was named after him. Only after his death in 2016 did Quebecers become aware of the vast legacy of written materials that he had bequeathed to them. His personal library comprises old books signed and many even annotated by him, a precious testament to his critical thinking. The Dominican University College Foundation plans to digitize this collection, which is physically located on the campuses of the Université de Montréal and the University of Ottawa. Plans are also under way to establish a Benoît Lacroix Chair for the study of culture, faith, popular traditions and history.
Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux et l’histoire de son âme (under the pen name Michel de Ladurantaye) (1947)
Pourquoi aimer le Moyen Âge? (1950)
L’histoire dans l’Antiquité : florilège suivi d’une étude (1951)
Vie des lettres et histoire canadienne (1954)
Saint-Denys Garneau (1956; new editions in 1967 and 1969)
Compagnon de Dieu (1961)
Le Ptit Train (illustrated by Anne-Marie Samson) (1964; new edition in 1980)
Le Japon entrevu (1965)
Orose et ses idées (1965)
Le Rwanda : mille heures au pays des mille collines (1966)
Lionel Groulx (1967)
L’historien au Moyen Âge (1971)
With Pietro Boglioni, Les religions populaires (1972)
Les Cloches (1974)
Folklore de la mer et religion (1980)
With Pietro Boglioni, Les pèlerinages au Québec (1981)
With Jean Simard, Religion populaire, religion de clercs? (1984)
Paroles à des religieuses (1985)
Marie de Saint-Michel (1986)
La religion de mon père (1986)
Célébration des âges et des saisons (1993)
With Albert Carpentier, Le Cantique des Cantiques et son interprétation (1994)
La foi de ma mère (1999)
Mort et survie des religions (2006)
Saint Dominique : au cœur d’une chrétienté en crise (2007)
Rumeurs à l’aube (2015)
Honours and Awards
Guggenheim Fellowship (1959)
Member of the Royal Society of Canada (1971)
Member of the French Académie des sciences morales et politiques (1971)
Prix Léon-Gérin (1981)
Member of the Société des Dix (1982)
Officer of the Order of Canada (1985)
Médaille Pierre-Chauveau (1987)
Honorary Doctorate, Université de Sherbrooke (1990)
Knight of the National Order of Québec (1991)
Grand Officer of the National Order of Québec (1996)