Bishop Scott McCaig, centre, Canada’s Military Ordinariate. Photo from X

Chaplain General pauses ban on religious language for Nov. 11

  • November 1, 2023

Canada’s military ordinariate is pleased that the Chaplain General has put a temporary pause on the new Public Reflection Policy that would have prohibited overtly religious language by chaplains at Remembrance Day ceremonies.

The Epoch Times reported Oct. 31 that Chaplain General Guy Belisle has at least temporarily backed down on the prohibition to give it further consideration. Citing an e-mail seen by Epoch Times reporter Noé Chartier, the newspaper says Belisle is granting at least temporary “leeway” on his Oct. 11 edict, and has kicked it over to a committee for review until next year.

“The Chaplain General has responded to the many voices of concern that have been raised from many different quarters,” said Bishop Scott McCaig. “We applaud him for doing so — it is a sign of responsive leadership.

“There needs to be a healthy balance between state neutrality at mandatory military events and religious freedom for voluntary religious services. The new policy focuses exclusively on the first, while neglecting the second. What is sorely lacking is a clear promise that voluntary services will accompany appropriate mandatory military events so that chaplains may effectively serve members of their own faith groups (including secular humanist chaplains and their constituents). Spiritual resiliency is too important to neglect without serious negative consequences, as the Total Health and Wellness Strategy of the Canadian Armed Forces recognizes.” 

The non-mainstream Toronto-based Epoch Times broke the story nationally on Oct. 16, leading to a cross-country outcry from veterans and reports that some chaplains were considering ending their service with the Canadian Armed Forces. Its latest report says Belisle’s primary concern was to avoid distracting focus from Remembrance Day and “our commitment to honour the sacrifice of all who have gone before us in service to Canada.”

However, the brigadier-general also apparently directs in the e-mail that language used by chaplains must be “inclusive” and that chaplains should replace Crosses, the star of David or the Islamic crescent with generic chaplaincy logo.

“Chaplains must consider the potential that some items or symbols may cause discomfort or traumatic feelings when choosing the dress they wear during public occasions,” Epoch Times quotes the directive.

McCaig said any study on the issue must “be truly inclusive and properly balance the complementary goods of state neutrality and the freedom of religion” and must avoid playing politics or submitting to ideological pressures.

“There is no diversity or inclusion if all of the diverse needs of military members are not included,” he said. “To be effective and productive the committee must carefully consider and protect the effective provision for the rich diversity of spiritual needs in the Canadian Armed Forces.”

McCaig  told The Register’s Anna Farrow when the news initially broke that top brass in the chaplaincy office were unprepared for the ensuing backlash.

“I don’t think they expected this to blow up the way it did,” said McCaig. “The amount of concern, scrutiny and emotion that this has generated, I think is a real surprise to the office of the Chaplain General.” 

McCaig added that he had spoken with many chaplains since the publication of the directive and they “are very discouraged. Morale has been very negatively affected.”

In his efforts to respond to that overwhelming concern, McCaig reached out to the Royal Canadian Legion.

Like the Poppy Campaign, it is the Legion that is responsible for the Remembrance Day ceremonies hosted across the country.

McCaig proposed that an interfaith or ecumenical prayer service be held following the official ceremonies. He had told The Register that though “organizers were very sympathetic, the proposal was not accepted because of security concerns.”

On Oct. 27, the official X account of the Canadian Legion posted that “it’s critical to understand the following: the CAF directive related to prayer is for its chaplains, and does not prevent other spiritual representatives present at Legion-organized Remembrance Day ceremonies from offering a prayer or speaking of God or a higher power. It's the Legion that organizes the national ceremony in Ottawa, as well as many others across our country.” 

Andrew Bennett, Canada’s former ambassador for religious freedom and now director of Cardus Faith Communities, said the reliance of the directive on a 2015 Supreme Court ruling known as the Saguenay decision showed the judgment hadn’t been read properly.

“I don’t think they’ve actually read the Saguenay decision because it doesn’t prohibit public prayer,” Bennett told The Register.

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