Peter Stockland: Let’s restore some balance in our time

  • January 10, 2022

The small but agitated crowd at the front steps of the Catholic Centre in downtown Montreal mistook me for their saviour.

I was, after all, a man with a key, if not to the kingdom of Heaven at least to the glass door which stood between them and the social assistance cheques their unmasked street faces said they expected (angrily) and needed (desperately).

Like so many others, alas, I lived up to their expectations by disappointing them with my insistence there was nothing I could do to help. I only rent an office in the Catholic Centre. I have no part in the building’s charitable agency that offers various services to those bearing the burdens and scars of street life, including providing the basic dignity of an address where social assistance cheques can be sent and collected.

It being the lull between Christmas and New Year’s when the Omicron virus spun us into yet another COVID frenzy, the good people who normally staff the agency had been ordered by the Quebec government to stay home. A political edict about home means one thing for those with homes. It’s another matter when home is purely a transient concept that, at its best, comes with bare cupboards and unmeetable needs.

Given that no one was home at the Catholic Centre to distribute the cheques, and the man with the key (moi!) turned out to be another broken promise, it’s little wonder that when I returned to the front steps a short time later, the glass door had been smashed in by the unstoppable power of desperate need and angry expectation.

Stepping through the shards, I had a rather obvious thought about the episode revealing a reality most people will never know. It epitomized a daily existence hinged on the ability to function depending entirely on pittances issued by a government that can, and does, confound its own promise simply by issuing totally unrelated edicts. My thoughts turned to what a source of social blunt force trauma even democratic states have become. Perhaps especially democratic states.

A key promise of the democratic state is benevolence. Because it’s predicated on a numerical assessment (otherwise called votes) of the common will, it undertakes (in the legal, binding sense of the word) to act with ultimate regard for the common good rather than imposing its will willy nilly. The COVID debacle reveals how radically that undertaking has been violated not just for the past two years but step by inexorable step for two generations or perhaps more. The current obvious imperiousness of both the federal and (most) provincial governments isn’t a contagion that spread pandemic-like in March 2020. COVID isn’t the cause. It’s the illumination.

The sources of that light (or depths of its shadow) are stars-in-the-sky abundant but one of the most identifiable causes is effectively ecological in nature. In nature, when organisms proliferate, their natural effect is to shove aside, and ultimately overwhelm, other forms of life. We see this when trees overtake grasslands or in ICUs where COVID viruses ravage human lungs. The democratic state, though obviously a meta-work of human organisms rather than organic, has followed this pattern precisely and precariously.

Witness, for ease of reference, how that rapacious displacement has ravaged the Church particularly in Quebec, but in general across Canada and, well, most of what we used to call the Western world. When Fr. Raymond de Souza and I co-founded Convivium magazine a decade ago, we wanted it to be a Catholic voice in the public square. As I assume the duties of publisher of The Catholic Register this week, the Church has essentially been locked out of its own buildings (for a second time!) by peremptory government fiat as if it were some kind of ragged trespasser on the vast estate of the state.

Personally, I do not believe, though this makes me an outlier in some Catholic circles, the answer is to respond as a small but agitated crowd prepared to smash the glass in frustration. I trust He who gave us the keys to the door and also to the Kingdom. But I also believe, fervently, that what has become of the democratic state, especially vis-à-vis the Church, cannot be allowed to stand. On my watch, The Register will a key part of restoring proper balance.

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