Calgary Bishop Emeritus Fred Henry, pictured, has challenged his brother bishops to demand proof of the thousands of residential school children alleged to have gone missing in the Indian residential school system. Canadian Catholic News

Editorial: We’re sticking to the facts

  • August 10, 2023

The contemporary political and cultural mood demands recall of what would normally be a blinding statement of the obvious in a liberal democracy: expression is not automatically endorsement.

The paramountcy of this axiom elevates it above even a consideration as vitally import as free speech. It must be über alles, so to speak, because without recognizing it as our first principle, we simply can’t proceed, however haltingly, toward the truth.

Here at The Catholic Register, we were sharply reminded in late June of how broadly this maxim has been forgotten when we ran a cover photo of a Pride flag. The context was the flap over school board debates about whether or not to hoist the LGBT et al rainbow over Catholic schools.

Intelligent readers inferred, and let us pointedly know of their inference, that we were endorsing the LGBT side. In fact, we were only employing a graphic expression of what all the flapping was about. Our news reporting sought to sort out exactly that. Editorially, we welcomed the York school board standing its ground in a democratic vote. Neither precluded using the flag to illustrate the source of existing controversy and division.

We’re aware, as well, that reporting in this issue of The Register on the appeal of Calgary’s Bishop Emeritus Fred Henry for a change in direction by his brother bishops vis-à-vis Indigenous issues will be understood as code for accepting, endorsing and advocating his position. To head off at the pass accusations of dog whistling (if readers will forgive mangling of metaphors to create an all-new cliché) we want to make clear that such an inference is one up with which we shall not put.

We are reporting Bishop Henry’s deep concern not because we endorse on its face each and every word. We are doing so because we believe what he’s saying is an essential element on Church-Indigenous reconciliation that has been too long ignored, if not subordinated to strategic considerations. Put simply, what he’s saying is that the high good of reconciling the Church’s historic wrongs against Indigenous people must not overwhelm its ultimate obedience to Truth. We can agree. We can disagree. But the expression must occur for discussion to ensue.

Legitimately, Archbishops Richard Smith, of Edmonton, and Don Bolen, of Regina, say they are not allowing any such thing to happen. Their comments quoted in The Register make clear their approach is one of optimum timing. In essence: Now is the time to listen, which can actively open the possibility of future challenge if necessary.

Context being key, it’s crucial to take into account the causality of Bishop Henry’s urgency. As we’ve editorialized with a healthy measure of admiration previously, he has lived a public life of clerical outspokenness gusting to provocativeness but always out of honesty and personal integrity, invariably non-ideologically despite his nickname of Red Fred. More concretely, after 55 years of service as a priest, almost 19 of them as pastoral leader of Calgary’s Roman Catholics, Henry is an octogenarian in failing health. As noted in our story, his remarks that we quote were e-mailed from hospital prior to admission to respite care. Most crucially, they were made for the sake of, in his words, “the Church that I love.”

Elsewhere on this page are the words of Pope Francis with which he reminds volunteers at World Youth Day that: “Those who love do not stand idly by, but serve others.” From his sick bed, Calgary’s Bishop Emeritus is refusing to “stand idly by” when what he understands as a call to service is upon him. It is not axiomatic, carte blanche endorsement of his understanding to admire its courage, report its particulars, and amplify its essence as part of the search for Truth in the Reconciliation process.

Bishop Emeritus Henry quite properly directs his urgent urging to his brother bishops, calling on them to stand up to the federal government for its political refusal to challenge what he sees as evident untruths about the fate of children at Indian residential schools. We would hope, however, that the spirit of his message extends beyond clerical bounds. It should, in the end, serve as a broad reminder that the pursuit of truth, begun with the best intentions, fails the instant it begins to automatically endorse strategic falsehood, however culturally and politically strategically convenient. 

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