Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
December 3, 2001
When prayer is not a prayer
The new Canadian Armed Forces prayer guide telling military chaplains not to use specific Christian references during public ceremonies institutionalizes a disturbing trend in the federal government.
First, there was the government's instruction to Church chaplains not to refer to Jesus Christ during their prayers at the 1998 memorial for victims of the Swissair disaster. Then there was the total absence of any prayer or religious references at the Ottawa memorial for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. And now, this.
The federal government wants its Armed Forces chaplains, all of whom are Christians, to offer generic prayers that make no reference to the Trinity. What would such a generic prayer sound like? Probably on the lines of "Have a good day." It would be a "prayer" offered to no one.
In any event, this is a directive no Christian could follow if indeed he or she is indeed praying. For any Christian always prays as a member of the Body of Christ and in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The federal government is not out of line in asking that prayer services that include soldiers of various faiths respect the faiths of all present. But this is not achieved by lowest common denominator "prayer." It can be achieved by offering various prayers by representatives of the different faiths.
Although most Canadians tell pollsters they are Christians, Canada is not a Christian country in the sense that, say Pakistan is a Muslim nation. Although the Judeo-Christian tradition has given rise to the awareness of human dignity that lies at the basis of our society, there is no Christian code of law as there is Islamic law. Part of the Christian tradition, explicitly spelled out by the Second Vatican Council, is the recognition that "the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person."
This dignity is assaulted when generic religion is substituted for real religion. It is also assaulted when only one faith is allowed to be expressed publicly. Part of being a multi-faith country where Christians are in the majority is that people are allowed freedom of religious expression. We don't abolish distinctions; we respect them.
In a 1984 talk in Winnipeg, Pope John Paul said, "In her own multicultural interaction, Canada not only offers to the world a creative vision of society but she also has a splendid opportunity to show consistency between what she believes and what she does. And this is accomplished by applying Christ's commandment of love."
Canada, clearly, has not yet learned how to live up to this injunction. Rather than honouring the religious impulse as the highest expression of human dignity, our federal government displays great fear of that impulse. This may lead to negative long-term repercussions. For the attempt to deny the human religious impulse will not lead to the extinction of that impulse, but could instead lead to its re-emergence in a distorted, aggressive manner.
One lesson of Soviet bloc communism was that religion cannot be abolished by government edict. Indeed, it was the courageous holding on to the faith despite intense persecution that helped lead to the collapse of what appeared to be a mighty empire. Nations that try to exist without a humble bowing to the Transcendent will soon find themselves with a hollow core.
Canada is moving in that direction. Our political leaders need to take stock and realize that while Christianity has a missionary thrust, it is also open to religious pluralism and dialogue. It is not a sin for a nation to pray in public. What is sinful is to act as though sentimental generic "prayers" are a substitute for allowing vibrant faith traditions to flourish in our midst.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.