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February 22, 2016

Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry drew passionate responses last month with his references to "totalitarianism in Alberta." Many people see this description as way over the top; Alberta is not a totalitarian society in the same way as the classic Soviet model. There, the government controlled virtually every aspect of life, going so far as having ordinary people spy on neighbours and family members.

However, Bishop Henry was drawing on the analysis of totalitarianism in St. John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, written in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire. The pope described totalitarianism as a form of society rooted in the denial of the objective truth about the human person. The person has a transcendent dignity "as the visible image of the invisible God." That dignity makes the person "the subject of rights which no one may violate."

Pope John Paul went on to say the denial of human dignity leads to efforts to subjugate the Church since it is the bearer and defender of transcendent truth.

Today, Western society is afflicted with ideologies that deny the existence of the transcendent and claim democracy can only thrive in a culture which denies the objective truth about the person, said the late pope. "Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends."

Thus, the pope pointed to a totalitarianism which is supposedly democratic, even though it has no gulags and in fact proclaims an allegiance to human rights. These "rights," however, are determined by majority vote or, more often, by the arbitrary fiats of parliaments, human rights commissions and the courts. What emerges over time is an "open or thinly disguised totalitarianism."

This issue is brewing not only in Alberta, but throughout the Western world. It is a concern that has been growing for decades, most obviously in the denial of the right to life from conception to natural death. Interestingly, another right Pope John Paul said democracies should recognize is "the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child's personality."

It is for the protection of such a moral environment that Alberta's bishops and many Catholics have been fighting in the current controversy over government guidelines ostensibly aimed at protecting LGBTQ teachers and students. The Church has defended the truth that physiological gender is not arbitrary.

This is a specific issue. However, it is also part of a larger battle over the transcendent dignity of the human person. Lose the larger battle, and we will be in a totalitarian state whether people recognize it or not.