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Religion, morality have a place in public debate

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • August 26, 2008

The British House of Commons was supposed to once again wrestle this summer with the Human Embryology Bill, a piece of legislation ostensibly designed to bring the legal framework of Britain into line with the realities of genetics research. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown has decided to once again postpone the end state of the debate.

The Human Embryology Bill is a breathtaking piece of legislation. It will change the rules on in-vitro fertilization, the potential for the creation of designer children and a series of other Brave New Worldish techniques and imaginings.

As bracing as the legislation is, the debate in England over the bill is what is truly remarkable. It is enough to make one envious of a vibrant political culture where moral issues are the stuff of parliamentary survival, editorial reasoning and Sunday sermons.  That the debate is featured on the front pages of the quality and tabloid press as well as TV and radio programming gives lie to the idea that the public and the media are only concerned with the trivial and the celebrity.

That there is a debate at all is due to the Catholic Church. When the scope of the proposed legislation became obvious, the church’s reaction was, well, ballistic. Church officials denounced the legislation as anti-human, priests decried the legislation from the pulpit, Catholic politicians were warned of the dangers of voting for the legislation and the public argument was launched.

Inevitably, it was strongly suggested that the church had no role in interfering in the political process or that mere matters of faith and conscience should not guide parliament’s hand. But that’s just the stuff of militant secularists attempting to stifle any and all thinking not geared to a utilitarian calculation or some lab-produced notion of technological inevitability.

It should not be the arguments of the secular that religion has no place in the public square that concerns us. What should really worry us all is that too many of us, at least here in Canada, think that religion and morality truly don’t have a place in public debates.

In real democratic discourse, keeping people out of the arena is dangerous for everyone. Just as contractors, sporting associations and chambers of commerce want to be heard in a debate about whether to build an arena or vie to be the host of an Olympic Games, so too when an issue goes to the heart of what it means to be human the voices of those who spend their waking hours, and dream time as well, in contemplation of that very question are the ones we all need to hear most.

In June, the Von Hugel Institute of Cambridge published a report on the status of religion and faith in public discourse in England. “Moral But No Compass” chided politicians and public institutions with paying lip service to the idea that religion might make a meaningful contribution to decision-making in the realm. The report concluded, rather controversially, that the only faith government seemed to take seriously was Islam and that was because of matters other than Islam’s moral stance or beliefs.

As a Canadian, I was struck by the irony of a nation, swept up repeatedly in the ramifications of clerical utterances and positions of principle, worrying that its citizens didn’t pay sufficient attention to the moral demands of belief systems. The academics at the Von Hugel Institute should get out more and witness cultures where faith isn’t simply ignored but denied any legitimacy except when it comes to easing the burdens of government in the provision of charity.  If nothing else they should read carefully Andrew Coyne’s recent Maclean’s cover story on Henry Morgentaler’s Order of Canada, in which he worries wisely on the debate that never was.

The reason England appears so enviable is simply because the debates are vigourous, alive and ultimately seem to matter. Our debates, when they happen, seem pallid and off point, or nearly stifled altogether.  But England seems to work because there are church officials intent on staking out a justified high ground, a media interested in something about religion other than scandal and a public and politicians who accept that talking about morals means talking with people who argue from a moral perspective.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer with CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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