Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 7, 2005
When will Mack the turtle burp?
In one of his immortal stories, Doctor Seuss tells of Yertle the Turtle who was king of a pond. The pond was clean, neat, the water was warm and there was plenty to eat.
But Yertle had great ambitions . . . for himself. "I'm ruler of all that I see. But I don't see enough," Yertle declared. He decided his throne needed to be higher so his rule would extend. So King Yertle began piling turtles upon turtles to make his throne higher.
With nine turtles stacked high, Yertle could see further. But after a few hours, a turtle named Mack, down at the bottom of the pile, began to complain of the pains in his back and shoulder and knees.
Yertle silenced Mack and ordered 2,000 more turtles to be added to the stack so he could extend his rule further.
"Ah, me!" he said. "What a throne! What a wonderful chair! I'm Yertle the Turtle! Oh marvellous me! For I am the ruler of all that I see."
Again, Mack complained about the oppression from above. And again the omniscient king silenced him. But when Yertle saw the moon rise above his head, he declared he would not allow it. He ordered yet more turtles - 5,607 - to be added to the stack.
But before the order could be implemented, little Mack burped "and his burp shook the throne of the king." Yertle "fell off his high throne and fell plunk! in the pond."
In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul argues that "the source and synthesis" of human rights lies in religious freedom. He then goes on to define religious freedom as "the right to live in the truth of one's faith and in conformity with one's transcendent nature as a person" (no. 47).
This transcendent nature means that the person cannot be understood except in relation to the eternal. Our lives are, as Father Ron Rolheiser often says, "an unfinished symphony." The more fully human we are, the more our lives point to that which is beyond human.
That "pointing" takes place by our devotion to that which is greater than the self - the family, the poor, the demands of morality, the search for truth, employment to help one's family flourish and, above all, to God himself.
So the denial of religious freedom is the denial of the deepest truth about what it means to be human. And one of the roles of the bishop is to declare and defend that transcendent nature of the human person from those forces - often power-hungry governments - that would try to narrow the focus of human living so that nothing else can thrive.
The Church is the soul of the world. And when the soul speaks with authority and persistence, it should not be ignored. Political theorist George Weigel writes, "The Church can distinctively, perhaps even uniquely, say to the world the things the world most needs to hear."
It is not surprising to hear Pierre Pettigrew, a senior federal cabinet minister, tell the Church that it should keep its nose out of the government's same-sex marriage legislation. After all, the government is making the Charter of Rights and Freedoms its sole source of input in deciding this issue. The government has made the charter its god and will hear nothing from other sources of wisdom.
It is not particularly relevant if other cabinet ministers do not explicitly agree with Pettigrew about silencing the bishops. They certainly agree with him in spirit in listening to only one voice.
The headline in The Edmonton Journal was apropos: "Who defines marriage: God or government?" We now see the government - and the judiciary with the acquiescence of Parliament - extending its rule into a realm that traditionally had never fallen within its purview. It is building a new religion under homey comforts of "human rights."
Like Yertle the Turtle, the federal government cannot stand to see another source of authority that might limit its ambitions. It will stack the turtles higher and higher until its jurisdiction knows no limits.
But, as other totalitarian regimes have found, that is very high indeed. And invariably there are always several turtles named Mack down at the bottom of the heap who will not be silenced, no matter what measures are taken. At the right moment, one of those Macks will burp and the whole structure will come tumbling down. The tragedy is that we may have to endure decades of oppression before the transcendent nature of the person finally wins out over the totalitarian state.
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