Spiritual void a nationwide problem

  • November 16, 2007
{mosimage}OTTAWA - Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s assessment of Quebec’s spiritual void, his passionate defence of her Christian history and his warning about the threat of fundamentalist secularism should be heeded in the rest of Canada, say religious freedom experts.

Ouellet’s Oct. 30 brief to the Bouchard Taylor Commission studying reasonable accommodation has led to some vitriolic responses from some columnists in Quebec, but those on the forefront of religious freedom battles see his intervention as timely and courageous.

“It is an excellent recognition of the fact of secularist dominance and a corresponding anti-religiosity in the culture and in the media,” said Centre for Cultural Renewal executive director Iain Benson, a lawyer who specializes in religious freedom.

Peter Lauwers, a Toronto-based constitutional lawyer who often represents Catholic interests before the courts, noted Ouellet’s insistence that “there must be space in the public square for religious identity.”

“His warning about the dangers in ignoring history and in radical secularism will resonate across Canada,” he said.

In Montreal, McGill University Christian studies professor Douglas Farrow agreed, describing Ouellet’s intervention as “courageous and insightful leadership from the top but it’s not clear who’s following.”

“One of the important distinctions to which he is drawing attention is the distinction between the state and civil society,” Farrow said. “He is arguing that the manifestations of religion in society are part of the fabric of society and belong to the citizens, to the people, and they give continuity to the people in their identity.”

Farrow sees Ouellet as fighting against the notion of the state “imposing an identity on people or denying them their identity.”

Those who support religious freedom are on the “same side as the cardinal,” he said. “They realize if you press the homogenizing power of the state too far, you wipe out the power of minorities to be minorities. It suppresses everyone.

“The whole country was established on political and social and philosophical foundations in which the Christian religion played an enormous role,” he said. “Some of the difficulties we are facing today are difficulties that arise from having moved off that foundation.”

Farrow called for an honest assessment of these foundations and an examination of the society’s drift away from them, a drift that in some cases has become an “outright repudiation.”

“Part of the problem in forgetting our heritage, in losing touch with the way our civilization with its respect for rights was built, with undermining the cornerstone of religious freedom, we’re creating a structure that is very weak and is inflated by false rights discourse and susceptible to collapse,” he said. “This new building of ours is badly built and eventually it will collapse.”

The experts also agreed with Ouellet’s defence of the presence of religious symbols and statues in Quebec’s public square and his assertion they did not represent the imposition of a state religion, but reflected Quebec’s historic Christian identity.

“Everyone reacted with horror when the Taliban blew up the Buddhist statues,” Lauwers said. “What’s the difference between that and taking down the crucifixes and public statuary?”

Lauwers sees the cultural swings in Quebec as larger than elsewhere in Canada.

“We have to create a society where reasonable accommodation is the expectation,” he said. “And those expectations flow in both directions. Muslims who want a theocracy are going to have to give up that thought just as the Christian majority has stepped back from a notion of a Christian government.”

Lauwers sees Ouellet as occupying a middle ground between radical secularists who want to “bleach” life of any religious influences and a proportion of non-urban French Canadian Catholics who want a “return to dominance.” That middle ground, one that the commission has staked out, is one that includes a “thorough respect for history.”

Lauwers said Ouellet is not looking for the return of a time when religious organizations ruled. “He is saying that one can be a practising, believing Catholic and say you are without offending the mores of society.”

Benson said the intervention could have been stronger if Ouellet had abandoned relativistic “values” language in favour of principles that could be easily mined from the Catholic tradition. Benson also disagreed with Ouellet’s categories of believer and unbeliever. “Everyone is a believer” in something, whether their faith is religious or non-religious, he contended.

“The real issue is that the newer beliefs of Quebecers don’t work personally or culturally,” Benson said.

Lauwers sees Ouellet’s call for a revival of Quebec’s Catholic Christian roots as “matching nicely” with recent research by sociologist Reginald Bibby who has found evidence of a “deep spiritual hunger” among Canadians. But he doubts Canada, given its diversity, will ever return to any form of religious consensus.

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