Peter Stockland

Peter Stockland

Peter Stockland is publisher of Convivium magazine and a senior fellow at Cardus.

As someone who can smell the incense from the last pew of the church, it was no challenge for me to sniff the billows of the beer coming off Ralph Klein.

March 28, 2013

I am that I am

Imagine being the universe and waking up one day to find you’re 80 million years older than you thought. Or, worse, to find the whole world now knows you’re so much older than you’ve been letting on.

That has to be an awkward moment even for a cosmos that’s seen, well, everything in its 13.81 billion years of existence...

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With all eyes fixed on Rome, it’s not surprising that Paula Celani’s moment of victory in a Montreal courtroom has gone almost unheralded.

The battle over legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide in Quebec just shifted to the side of the angels. On Feb. 19, a group of more than 300 courageous and very determined doctors took out attention-grabbing newspaper advertisements declaring bluntly that their role will never be to “kill” their patients. Calling themselves the Physicians’ Alliance for Total Refusal of Euthanasia, they issued a manifesto rejecting the whole ideology under which doctors would be complicit in administering lethal doses of drugs to patients.

February 13, 2013

Chained by arrogance

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.

In a recent blog for Cardus — the think tank that among its many other good works publishes Convivium magazine — I cited an item sent to me by a regular correspondent. It was, I wrote, a brilliant, step-by-step summary of the way in which so-called “social progress” has occurred during the past 30 years at the expense of long-standing Canadian tradition, custom and especially faith.

The summary read as follows:

o Find an extreme position calling for radical change and self-define it as moderate.

o Get your fellow travellers on The Long March through the unionized newsrooms of the nation to adopt your language.

o Define all who oppose you as intolerant extremists.

o See above re: fellow travellers, and repeat at teachers’ conventions nationwide. Concerned about their social status, teachers will adopt whatever position is portrayed as most fashionable.

o Bake in oven for two terms of government, use quasi-judicial bodies to institute pogroms against your opponents and, bingo, you have progressive social change no matter how much it might feel like a boot stomping on your face.

The only serious addition I offered was expanding item four to include professional associations: lawyers, doctors, Indian chiefs.

It turned out there’s more, and it came from an academic friend:

o Argue for a supposedly moderate change that goes just beyond generally accepted conventions and principles.

o When some people raise objections, accuse them of engaging in specious slippery-slope arguments, insisting that, of course, we certainly do not mean to advocate for those alleged consequences, and it is offensive to be so misrepresented.

o All the while secretly intend the normalization of precisely those furthermost implications down the road

o Once the change argued for is effected, argue for the next supposedly moderate, incremental change that will bring us closer to the realization of the desired (but temporarily too controversial) more radical outcomes. This involves reminding society of how its enlightened embrace of the previous change should lead them to consent to the next step, and mock those who object by pointing out that the sky hasn’t fallen.

These precepts explain the “how” of surreptitious social “progress” that has led to such travesties as the de facto abolition of the constitutional rights of parents to have schools that teach their children what it means to be Catholic, and Quebec’s pending abolition of our foundational Christian understanding of what it means to be human.

Having defined the “how,” however, neither set offered a proposal for what is to be done. Still, simply identifying the steps of the process creates the expectation that someone, somewhere, has some explaining to do. And that opens the door to challenging the dangerous presuppositions at the heart of the radical upending of our society.

Those presuppositions are:

o Any self-proclaimed “progressive” measure is always an essential step demanded by the “forward movement” of history, and its achievement is inevitable.

o The onus is always on those who are hesitant to adopt such “progressive” measures to show why they should not be adopted.

The deficiencies of both become obvious. The second one is grossly unjust and requires the logical fraud of having to prove a negative. The first contains a childish tautology: we want to do this because it’s progress, and it’s progress because we want to do it.

What this means is that the following demands should be made of anyone who proposes any self-defined “progressive” vision:

o State definitively what the historic end point of your progressive vision will be.

o State truthfully your confidence in your ability to forecast that particular historic end point.

o State plainly what existing natural rights and protections must be sacrificed for your progressive vision to be achieved.

o State concretely how your vision of progress differs from a reversion to barbarism.

Such demands are not obstructionist or reactionary. They are the simple precautions any sane people will take before agreeing to changes in the makeup of their society. The final question, of course, is whether it’s already too late for sanity.

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

 

January 16, 2013

Living in the moment

For someone who is neither doctor nor priest, there is something spectacularly meditative about encountering death face-to-face four times in one year.

A year ago this month, my wife’s mother died after a long affliction.

In August, my colleague Michael Van Pelt’s 15-year-old son, Kenton, drowned at the family cottage in one of those tragedies that makes life feel as if all Earth has dropped into a hell of particularly inexplicable, random cruelty.

Halfway through November, my father-in-law died quickly after a diagnosis of cancer, still grieving his beloved wife’s death.

On Dec. 29, our good family friend and fellow anti-euthanasia campaigner, Dr. André Bourque, was killed by an aneurism as he shovelled Christmas snow.

With all four deaths, I was among those God favoured to stand before the deceased in prayer, and look into faces that had, mere countable hours before, smiled, laughed, talked, worried, wondered, scowled, sung and otherwise engaged in all the amazing expressions of human life.

In Kenton Van Pelt, I saw the fine strong face of a handsome young man senselessly suspended at mid-point in the arc from adolescence to adulthood. I’d enjoyed a family meal with him a week previously, and marvelled at the signs of maturing Christian character emerging from him. His death so young made a mockery of our culture’s arbitrary categories of age. It reminded me that, in the essentials, we all share one age: the marvel of the single moment we are living right now.

In Dr. André Bourque, I looked into a face miraculously imbued and embedded with kindness. It was the face of a devoutly Catholic doctor who gave his all for the care of his patients and who, when he felt those patients threatened by the encroaching evil of legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide, worked tirelessly to rally grassroots Quebecers and his medical colleagues alike to stop the scourge. Not lost in the passage from life to death was his ever-present air of calm and wisdom and determination to do what is right. Sometimes, the grand gesture, yes. More often, the small touch, the encouraging word, the gracious answer, the good laugh that were all signs of Christ’s presence in everything Dr. Bourque did.

For my mother-in-law, a devotional light returned to her features after almost a decade of ravaging, darkening dementia. I will go to my own death convinced that light was the same as the one that shone when my wife asked, moments before death, if her mother wanted her long-deceased friend, Soeur Alice, to come and take her home. At the sound of the nun’s name, my mother-in-law sat up, drew her last few breaths, looked toward a corner of the ceiling and lay down with a small smile on her lips. Her light gave the lie to the pernicious belief that we ever need a euthanizing needle in the arm to die with dignity.

Perhaps because I was present at the very fragment of an instant separating his life from his death, it is my father-in-law’s passing that I encounter most often and concretely these days. It is his face I see most vividly when I ponder the cluster of deaths that marked 2012.

My wife and I were at his bedside, in the little house where he lived for 50 years, when his ragged breathing warned us he was slipping away. When he breathed, stopped, then snatched a final few gasps of air, we were holding his hand, saying silent prayers, listening with our whole being to the sound of life arising and departing.

Looking deeply into the face I had known and loved for 30 years, I felt a dizzying sense of him receding toward the beginning of his life. My father-in-law was not a tall man, though he was powerful in chest, shoulders and arms. Lying lifeless, he became first a younger man, then a little boy, then the infant who lay at his mother’s breast 80-plus years ago.

The feeling was, I’m inclined to think, God reminding me of the folly of putting all my faith in the fruits of humanly created time. It was His call to meditate on the necessity of turning my face, again and again, toward Christ as He bends from eternity into the history that is my life.

Moments are where we live. His grace in each and every one of those moments has conquered death for once and for all.

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

 

December 19, 2012

Oh Christmas tree!

I am not a convert. Yet. But I confess to having taken meaningful steps away from my ancient iron-clad convictions.

The steps are, in fact, inevitable since they lead me from my dark, cramped basement office past the living room where my wife has set up, decorated and illuminated a beautiful Christmas tree. There I’ve said it. We have a beautiful Christmas tree in our house.

Not long ago — I’m talking, oh, last week — it would have been easier for Oliver Cromwell to beg the Pope’s blessing at Midnight Mass than for me to bring the words “beautiful,” “Christmas tree” and “our house” within a light year of each other.

I grew up loving Christmas. And loathing Christmas trees. Always hated them. Never could abide the wretched things. When I was about five, I got smacked across the face by an evil branch on some odious Yuletide sapling my father was bringing home. When I was about 25, I suffered agonizing frostbite on my ears one brutal December night in Edmonton after being forced outside to buy a ridiculous lump of pine.

Going bareheaded was my defiance of the whole reprehensible ritual of tree shopping. It was tactical defiance. My plan was to make it essential that we grab the first tannenbaum at hand, no matter how scrawny or mangled, and vamoose before my head froze. The glowing white circles of pain on both my ears gave proof how well that scheme worked.

Frankly, I would now rather go shoe shopping with a three-legged woman than endure the torments of touring the local Christmas tree lot. Indeed, the two adventures bear a remarkable resemblance. In both, everything must be circled, touched, inspected, hoisted and balanced, sized, deemed worthy and then suddenly and inexplicably unworthy, several times before grudging approval and final settlement are reached. For a dead strip of leather. Or a dead stretch of tree.

My wife, you’ll have guessed, buys our trees. That’s because she insists we have a tree. I go along — as long as I don’t have to have anything whatever to do with the thing itself.
I have never, Cromwell-like, tried to ban Christmas trees from our house just because someone else might enjoy them. I am not a Christmas tree dog in the manger. On the contrary, I once got a tiding of great joy from a Christmas tree when one of our three cats took a flying leap, put what looked like a professional wrestling hold on the angel at the top, and rode the whole collapsing mass down to the living room floor below. I still give that kitten extra supper just to say thanks for a job well done.

My opposition to Christmas trees is, in fact, rooted in cold logic. What, I have always asked, is the point of dragging a tree into the house just because it’s December? Do we carve up slabs of lawn and slap them down on the kitchen floor because it’s April? Do we pile autumnal leaves over the flat-screen HDTV because it’s September? No. We do not. We leave outside what belongs outside. Right?

Yes. Except this year my wife lost her mother in January, her father in mid-November. Early in December, she brought home a box of decorations that had been on virtually every tree put up in her family’s house for the past 50 Christmases. Suddenly, the quintessential Santa that I would have scorned as emblematic of Christmas commercialization became a symbol of childhood magic and memory. Suddenly, the glittery guitar, violin and harp that I would once have derided as tchotchkes are all that is left of the music my father-in-law filled the house with each Christmas. The bright red and yellow glass balls for the tree branches went from baubles of banality to fragile reminders of loving hands that will lift and place them no more.

“The great light, of which the Christmas tree is a sign and a reminder, not only hasn’t dimmed with the passing of centuries and millennia, but continues to shine on us and enlighten each person who comes into this world, especially when we go through moments of uncertainty and difficulty,” Pope Benedict said last week at the lighting ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.

Beautiful words that are, I confess, entirely made manifest by our beautiful tree. I am not yet a convert, Holy Father. But give me a few more steps.

And it’s amazing that no one questions this

Every year as Advent approaches, my memory goes to a moment our priest asked my six-year-old son if he would carry the Baby Jesus up the aisle on Christmas Eve.

I could tell how honoured he was to have been asked but also, in a character trait forming for life, how much he was fretting about the task he’d just accepted. He was silent for most of the trip home, finally asking somberly: “Do we have a Baby Jesus at home? What am I going to bring instead if we can’t find Him?”

I reassured him the church would provide the Baby Jesus, though I really wanted to tell him he had already brought Christ anew to the Church by his willingness to serve and bring whatever gift he could to God.

The explanation would have gone over his head, naturally, but the moment never fails to open my eyes a little wider each year to the meaning of Matthew 18:3: “Verily, I say unto you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

I must admit that particular piece of Scripture is one of many that took years to sink into my understanding. Don’t we admonish our children to stop being childish? Aren’t children supposed to become adults, not vice-versa? And what does it mean to be “like children” anyway? Sketchy table manners? Missing front teeth? Only coming up to the waist of most of the rest of the world?
The easy thing would be to blame Catholicism for my inability to grasp such perplexing verses. Doesn’t accepted wisdom tell us Catholics simply don’t know how to read the Bible? Yet in a recent Convivium magazine interview Paul Henderson, the country’s greatest goal scoring evangelical Christian, told me that he, too, is often flummoxed by Scripture.

A passage that upset him for a long time, he said, is the wedding feast at Cana when Our Lord comes across as a provocatively disrespectful son to Mary, speaking to her in a way that would prompt many parents — well, me, anyway — to say with full on-high authority: “Don’t you speak to me in that snippy voice, young mister.”

As Henderson puts it so well: “You can get the same problem with Scripture as you do with e-mail. You can’t see the facial expression or hear the tone of voice so it’s easy to have misunderstandings.”

Or, as in my case with Matthew, have no easy time understanding at all.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock comes from approaching meaning with preconception rather than openness. When Christ calls us to “become like children” don’t our minds immediately flit to images of innocence? Of happiness?

In a delightful recollection of long-ago childhood Christmas in Saskatchewan, however, Convivium writer Alan Hustak reminds us that being like children — being children — is not synonymous with a trouble-free, easy-peasy existence.

At the tender age of four, Hustak found himself wrestling with the age-old conundrum of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. To be more precise: of keeping to himself a silver dollar even though that meant disobeying his grandfather by refusing to put the coin on the collection plate held by an enormous ceramic angel during Midnight Mass.

Most adults would bet on the angel in such showdown, but that doesn’t mean children always do. The essential Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor tells of a game she invented as a child that she called Sock the Angel. She locked herself in a room, closed her eyes and swung her fists wildly around in hopes of connecting with the jaw of the angel on her shoulder.

Fittingly, it was also O’Connor who said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Don’t we, as Christian children, know the crucial importance of a Baby Jesus even if we’re unclear on exactly where to find Him?

Don’t we just need someone to give us the Word, and we will bear Him as best and as proudly as we possibly can?