Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
December 27, 2004
Beware the totalitarian state
In an article last March in the journal First Things, Father Raymond de Souza, a priest of the Kingston, Ont., Archdiocese, argued, "Canada is not a totalitarian state, but the totalitarian impulse is very thinly disguised indeed, and the signs on the horizon are ominous."
De Souza saw manifold threats to the freedom of religion in Canada, the federal government's reference to the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage first among them. Freedom of religion is the basic freedom, not the freedom to make up your own religion, but rather the freedom in conscience to adhere to a set of religious principles.
No totalitarian government - a government which aspires to total control over the life of its people - will allow people this freedom. It will attempt to control the sanctuary of religious conscience just as it limits other aspects of human living.
But Canada totalitarian? We have a fine history of democracy and even today we are striving to uphold human rights. How could Canada become totalitarian? Well, just by exerting control over freedom of religion.
The Supreme Court, in its Dec. 9 ruling on same-sex marriage, upheld the right of churches and clergy to refuse to take part in such marriages. Churches will not be conscripted to take part in this alleged human rights venture. We can rest easily for now - or so we may think.
What is of concern is that the Supreme Court even chose to rule on this question: For the courts and the state have no jurisdiction over the administration of the sacraments. Yet, our courts and politicians boast that they allow the churches to administer the sacraments and see this as the perfect response to any recalcitrance from Canada's faith groups regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage.
De Souza raised a number of scenarios in which the political enthusiasm for same-sex marriages may curtail the exercise of religious freedom in Canada short of the government trying to control the administration of a sacrament. Will future court rulings oblige churches to rent out their halls for receptions following same-sex marriages? Will religious charities be forced to recognize people in same-sex relationships as legally married? Will religious schools be barred from firing a teacher who is in a same-sex marriage? Will a religious hierarchy be barred from disciplining clergy who perform legally valid, but ecclesiastically forbidden, same-sex marriages?
We don't yet know the answers to these questions. But if they seem far-fetched, consider some recent incidents. There was the Ontario case in 2002 of a court ruling that a Catholic high school must allow a student to bring his same-sex friend to the school graduation.
Then there was the Revenue Canada phone call to Calgary Bishop Fred Henry demanding that he remove a pastoral letter critical of Prime Minister Paul Martin from his diocese's website or risk losing the diocese's charitable status. While Henry criticized Martin, a Catholic, for espousing positions on same-sex marriage and abortion clearly at odds with Church teaching, he did not even suggest how Catholics should vote.
Religious freedom is still alive in Canada. But our country is more and more working out of the assumption that democracy is based on religious and ethical pluralism. This is a false assumption. What democracy requires is a foundation that some ethical principles are inviolable and that there are limits to the reach of state power. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms calls it "the supremacy of God and the rule of law."
Until there is far clearer recognition that ethical goods, such as human life, friendship and religion, are immeasurable and not up for auction, our democracy will be in trouble. Canada is not a totalitarian state. But the march forward of same-sex marriage has placed the future of democracy in doubt. As de Souza stated, the signs on the horizon are ominous.
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