Chained by arrogance

  • February 13, 2013

Cardinal Joseph Zen had a wise and timely reminder at a dinner hosted by Convivium magazine earlier this month. We must never forget, the former bishop of Hong Kong said, that the size of the cage is irrelevant in matters of fundamental freedom.

“Whether a bird is in a large cage or a small cage, it is still in a cage. And it does not matter if a dog is on a long chain or a short chain. It is still on a chain,” he said.

Cardinal Zen’s immediate focus for his audience at a banquet hall north of Toronto was the persecution of the Church in China. Now 81, he remains a relentless bell-ringer in the face of Beijing’s persecution of Christians. As a younger man, he put himself in physical danger from government goon squads to protest Communist attacks against the faithful.
Yet if we confine ourselves to considering his remarks as applicable only to a land far away and much different from our own, we are missing the cardinal’s critical message and misunderstanding the situation facing people of faith face right here at home.

No, Canada is definitely not China. We do a grave disservice to Christians who have worshipped under the tyrants of Tiananmen to imagine or pretend that it is. Still, constrictions on our most basic religious liberties are approaching the point where Cardinal Zen’s comparison between large and small cages, long and short chains, should be vividly on our minds.

To take but one example of the many that have arisen just in recent weeks, a private Catholic boys school in Montreal has had to turn to the Supreme Court of Canada to protect its basic, constitutionally protected freedom of religious belief. There might be comfort in Loyola High School at least having recourse to the protection of the high court. It is cancelled out by realizing it was the Quebec Court of Appeal that drove the school to take this costly and exhausting legal step to defend itself from the predations of the State.

Since 2008, Loyola has been struggling under the Quebec government’s imposition of its Ethics and Religious Culture program on the Jesuit school that first became a part of Montreal’s educational landscape in 1848. It has never refused to teach the glorified world religions program. It has taught its own world religions course for more than 40 years. It asked only for an exemption to teach the ERC program from a Catholic confessional perspective.

Even that should give serious pause to all who care about liberty, religious liberty in particular. The very picture of a private Catholic institution having to ask permission to teach Catholic doctrine in a pluralistic context begets an image of the outline of a cage, the shapes of the links of a chain.

The request, permissible within the very law that created the ERC, was imperiously dismissed by Quebec’s State-o-crats. Why? They doubted the competency of a Catholic school to teach the program properly if it were adapted to their mission.

There is injury and there is insult and there is the ruthless arrogance of the State in combining both while crushing liberty under its heel. That is the characterization a lower court judge gave to the Quebec government’s conduct when he sided with Loyola and rejected the State’s dictatorial and “Pontius Pilate-like” conduct.

Last December, the Quebec appeal court overturned that decision. What’s worse is that it actually recognized the Quebec government’s refusal to accommodate Loyola’s Catholic nature was, in fact, an infringement on religious liberty. It simply concluded that the violation was “negligible” because the ERC program is only one of many courses the school teaches.
Negligible. Think about that word with a vision in mind of large cages and small cages. Of long chains and short chains.

A private religious school, with long-standing historic importance to a community, is ordered to teach about religions not its own. When it asks to be left alone to exercise its freedom to teach the course fairly but according to its fundamental understanding of the world, it is told emphatically “request denied” by the State. And an appeal court, while recognizing the assault on basic liberty, deems the damage “negligible” because the school is still “free” to teach other things.

The cage is roomy. The chain is long. Hey, at least we’re not China. Right, Cardinal Zen?

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)


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