In Quebec City, a statue of St. Francois de Laval, first bishop of Quebec who stood up for the welfare of Indigenous people. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Fr. Raymond de Souza: Church-state alliances lead to dangerous path

  • August 12, 2021

What is the role of the state — the civil power, be it the crown or another form of government — in evangelization?

That is one of the deeper questions raised by the difficult history of the Indian residential schools.

The developing consensus in modern times is that the state does not have a role in evangelization. This is most formally and famously codified in the First Amendment to the American constitution, namely that the government should not in any way “establish” religion.

Yet for most of Christian history the state was a key partner in evangelization. And when the state is a key partner, the interests of the state can compromise, even corrupt, the proclamation of the Gospel.

The Indian residential school system was a state project, aimed at assimilating Indigenous peoples into the British-French culture of the newly-confederated Canada. To save money, the Canadian government turned to Christian missionaries to run the schools; the largest number were run by Catholics, and the largest number of them were run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

What did the Christian missionaries — Catholic, Anglican, Protestant — get out of the arrangement?  A chance to proclaim the Gospel in a new land. A chance to temper the rougher edges of the colonial project. A chance to contribute to the development of the Indigenous peoples.

That could describe any number of historical episodes — whether it was Iberian missionaries in Latin American under the Spanish or Portuguese crowns, or the greatest missionary of them all, St. Francis Xavier, labouring in India and as far as Japan.

Missionaries were brought by the civil power for mixed motives, some of them noble, some of them mercenary. But it was the norm.

In Canada, the earliest roots of the Church were planted by St. Francois de Laval, who was part of the structure of the colony of New France. The colonial project included, with the support of the French crown, provision for the spiritual good of the colonies, understood at the time to be the provision and expansion of Catholic sacraments and structures.

The alliance between altar and throne, as unusual as it seems to us today, was the norm in Europe for centuries. We know well the great conflicts that arose when the state claimed for itself governance of the Church itself; Gregory VII, Thomas More and John Fisher protested and suffered for defending the liberty of the Church. Yet, in principle, altar and throne were to co-operate to build up the common good — which included what we might call the “Catholic good” too.

Given that the interests of the state are not the same as the Gospel — Caesar is not God — there inevitably arose conflicts between what the colonial power wanted and what the Gospel demanded. Some Catholics were heroic in such circumstances. St. Francois de Laval himself, as first bishop of Quebec, firmly opposed the French colonial authorities for their abuse of the dignity and welfare of the Indigenous peoples.

Not all Christian missionaries rose to the occasion. Many, if the interests of the state conflicted with the demands of the Gospel, chose the former. After all, that was where the power and money was. And it could always be rationalized on the grounds that the civil power was necessary — perhaps even a “necessary evil” — to get on with the missionary mandate of evangelization.

Yet evil remains evil. The residential schools history illustrates that when the Christian churches collaborate with state policy, the former can accommodate themselves to the injustices of the latter. To be sure, there were Christian voices, including prominent Catholic ones, who objected to Christian complicity in the injustices, but they were not the consensus.

Two of the best Catholic films ever made — both written by Robert Bolt — are A Man for All Seasons and The Mission. Both films explore what it means for the Church to operate in close proximity to the civil power, especially when that civil power turns against the Church on fundamental questions like slavery, marriage and religious liberty. The stories are complex and the issues nuanced, but the general gist is clear. It is dangerous for the Church to get too close to the government.

The Canadian residential schools’ experience shows that dynamic at work again. In the time of Francois de Laval, the Church offered a courageous witness. Too often though in subsequent years, co-operation was offered instead, and the Gospel itself was compromised.

(Fr. de Souza is the founding editor of Convivium and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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