Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 29, 2002
Please don't separate Church, state
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
In response to my recent pastoral letter on Bill 12, I received a letter from the minister of learning "correcting" what he called "misinformation." He proceeded to inform the media that he believed the parishioners of the Catholic Church in Calgary were entitled to know the facts and wanted his letter circulated to the parishioners.
My own response was: "You got to be kidding!" When pressed by the media, I said that I stood behind my statement, there was virtually no chance that I would accede to his request, and that I had a right to stand in criticism of the government's bill and if they don't like it, too bad.
In addition to a bad piece of legislation, an important principle is at stake.
To understand this principle a little history is needed. The whole concept of separation of Church and state is relatively recent, dating back to the constitution of the State of Virginia which was written by Thomas Jefferson and the slightly later constitution of the United States.
I'll use the form from the latter. "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or preventing the free exercise thereof......." (the First Amendment). Note that this says nothing concerning the various churches' positions, it simply limits the government of the United States from establishing one or another of them as the "official" religion.
Canada does not have an equivalent statement, either in the British North America Act nor in the Constitution Act as repatriated. What Canada does guarantee is "freedom of religion." This is found both in Parliamentary Act (The Bill of Rights passed in 1960) and in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Since the latter is now part of our fundamental law, I will quote it. Article 2 of the charter states: "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of religion and conscience." There is no statement of "separation of Church and state" in either of these basic documents. The issue is religious freedom.
If one looks at the Bible, you will find that much of the Hebrew or Old Testament is filled with the writings of the prophets, almost all of whom spoke against the governments of their day.
The prophets never preach a water-downed justice and only rarely a gentle justice: for them, justice is passionate, tempestuous, hotheaded and most of all, immediately necessary. Prophesy is a particular kind of work, with that work situated physically on the lips and the mouth, symbolizing a demand for utterance.
Prophecy is about speaking and living the word, especially speaking the word "no" to all that destroys and living the prophetic "no" with all one's might, refusing to let false words and false actions slip by without comment and resistance.
No one describes prophecy better than Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says prophecy is born of the pathos of God. This divine pathos or grief contributes to making prophetic teaching bothersome and troublesome; for prophecy causes Temple authorities and ordinary people to be uncomfortable. (One might legitimately substitute "Members of the Legislative Assembly" for "Temple authorities.")
As Heschel describes the situation, they read the Bible for a sense of order, but instead of getting it, they are thrown into "Orations about widows and orphans, about corruption of judges and affairs of the marketplace. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansion of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums.
"The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized and rave as if the whole world were a slum. They make much ado about things, lavishing excessive language upon trifling subjects."
However, Heschel's main point is that the things that horrify the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. (Again, one might add, even in Alberta.)
Prophets make Temple authorities and ordinary people uncomfortable. One of the most dramatic examples of this occurs in the familiar New Testament text:
"When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written.
"’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.’
"And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him. Then he began to say to them, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4: 16-21).
If we read past these words, we come across an account of grumbling and murmuring on the part of the congregation. And as Jesus develops his reflection on the text of Isaiah in relation to what it means for that ordinary congregation, they start to murmur the Aramaic equivalent of "Who does he think he is?"
They move to expel him, the movement catches fires, and they attempt to throw him out bodily, not only from the synagogue but from Nazareth and even from life. And why? Because he is calling them to justice.
In Canada, we have no established church. We have freedom of religion. The several churches and religious bodies of our country are free to speak about what our governments do or fail to do and members of those churches or religious bodies are free to accept or reject either the government's position of the several churches' or religious bodies’ positions. In this, then, there is a form of separation of Church and state. But notice that it does not have either a legal basis as such, nor a position of compulsion. It is a matter of freedom of conscience.
You have the freedom of conscience to accept or reject what I have said, indeed, what anybody says. It is that freedom of religion that I defend, not the "separation of Church and state."
The kind of separation that says the Church or its leaders cannot speak about governmental actions would encourage governments, in the long run, to ignore the great prophetic command found in both Isaiah and Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."
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