Neil MacCarthy: Heritage designations can bind church’s hands

The next time you’re faced with an overwhelming home renovation, consider this: collectively, the Catholic, Anglican and United Churches own 3,000 buildings in the province that require a combined $30 million to operate annually. Another $30 million is spent on maintaining “historic properties.” That’s a lot of shingles.

Before there were town halls or schools, arenas or the local Tim Horton’s, parishes were the spiritual and community hubs of society, bringing people together to strengthen the neighbourhood. Over the years though, the role of the parish as community centre has changed, and so have the neighbourhoods they serve.

While many historic churches continue to thrive, others, sadly, are facing significant challenges, with little or no funds to maintain their facilities, often due to dwindling congregations. While desirable, maintaining all of these churches is just not feasible.   

A “heritage designation” from various municipal governments has been applied to about 12 per cent of the 3,000 churches in Ontario.

Designated churches require permission from their municipality to change in any way the parts of the building that are considered culturally significant, often including pews, windows, altars and other parts of the building used for worship. So if the bishops, priests and laity agree it makes sense to renovate or (as a last resort) demolish a church that is no longer viable, they don’t have a legal right to implement that option.

Groundbreaking report

An exhaustive American study has attempted to answer the imponderable: what caused so many priests to sexually abuse minors over the second half of the 20th century?

The authors of the report, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of New York, spent five years sifting through thousands of pages of data, interviews and surveys from victims, priests and bishops. Their work, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is described as the most complete  examination of clergy abuse ever.

They found that abuse increased throughout the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s and then drastically declined around the mid-1980s. No single cause was identified but it found a host of social and institutional factors that may explain the sudden spike and just-as-sudden fall. The most controversial of these is that clergy abuse was sparked by a broader decline in society’s moral behaviour typified by the sex and drugs revolution of the 1960s.

Peter Stockdale: Only in Canada do we challenge the self-evident truth

Canada’s Supreme Court has been asked to adjudicate whether religious freedom means the freedom to actually say something is really true that you believe to be really true.

It’s true. We’re that far gone. We’re that far down the path toward a state of total social incoherence. We are at the point where it takes the top jurists in the land, and a small army of lawyers, to decide whether what is staring us in the face is also right in front of our noses.

The case in question is Catholic parents in Quebec who objected to the provincial education ministry imposing a mandatory ethics and religion program on all schools, public and private.

At the surface level, the program is dishwater comparative religion. People who go to synagogue believe this. People who go to Catholic Mass believe that. People who go to mosque believe something else again. We’d like to teach the world to sing in neutral harmony.

Punk album flew under responsibility radar

The case of a punk rock band giving back its government grant following a public outcry shines light again on the world of government funding for the arts and revives the issue of where to draw the line.

Vancouver’s Living with Lions recently released an album called Holy S**t, complete with graphics that included a resurrection figure appearing to be created from excrement. Before the album was recalled, the last line of the band’s acknowledgements read, “We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Department of Canadian Heritage,” the standard acknowledgement for all organizations receiving Heritage funding, and not something taxpayers expect to see on such vulgar packaging.

Through Canadian Heritage, our taxes fund all kinds of projects, many of them beneficial or at least non-controversial. In this case, funds were directed through the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR), which provides loans and grants to promote and foster Canadian talent. In its statement about the Living with Lions CD, FACTOR noted that “the record in question was packaged with graphics and liner notes that some may consider offensive. This material had not been submitted to FACTOR prior to its release. We have communicated to the record label that there has been a negative reaction from some members of the public regarding the content.”

Don’t spare the beauty for the new Roman Missal

Canadian parishes will begin preparing soon for the new translation of the Mass, to be implemented in Advent 2011. Yet one decision needs to be made sooner; parishes must order their copies of the new Roman Missal (the book of prayers for Mass used at the altar).

The missal must be beautiful. Anything that is not beautiful should never be on the altar. Our supreme worship of the Lord requires beauty. We too require beauty — which is why we dress up for important functions, decorate our homes by the season and use beautiful things for special occasions. Mercifully, the age of ugly vessels upon the altar is largely passed, and increasingly one sees beautiful vestments, church decor and architecture.

Most people never see the missal. Yet the priest who offers Mass and the servers who assist him need to be constantly reminded that what they are doing is not routine. The long tradition of missals that were themselves works of art was aimed at assisting the priest to be mindful of just that.

Courting trouble

Last year Parliament overwhelmingly rejected a private member’s bill introduced by former Bloc MP Francine Lalonde that would have amended the Criminal Code to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. That should have been the end of the story, or at least the end of a chapter until either the government or a private member put the issue back before Parliament. But Canadian law on this contentious issue is again under threat, but this time MPs have no say in the matter.

It shouldn’t be that way, of course. Canadians elect Members of Parliament to make laws. But much the way on-demand abortion was legalized in 1988, Canadian law on end-of-life decisions will be made by judges if proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide succeed in cases currently before the courts.

The first challenge is from a Vancouver woman who helped her terminally ill, 89-year-old mother commit suicide in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. Lee Carter admits she abetted her mother’s death. That would mean she broke Canadian law that prohibits a person from aiding, encouraging or counselling another’s suicide, or intentionally causing a death. But backed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, she has asserted in B.C. Supreme Court that the Criminal Code is unconstitutional.

Missionary work is cultural as well

The first Jesuits in North America arrived 400 years ago. In 1611, two Jesuit priests arrived in what is now Nova Scotia, a few months after the local Mi’kmaq chief decided to be baptized along with his family, becoming the first aboriginal Christians in Canada. With the conversion of the chief, the first Jesuits found a secure welcome and lived with the Mi’kmaq for several years. Consequently the quatercentenary emphasized the initial encounter between the Jesuits and the Mi’kmaq. But as reported in The Catholic Register (Jesuits mark 400 years of ministry in Canada), the Mi’kmaq were not only looking to the past. They want the Jesuits to help with the future.

“Maybe it’s time for the Mi’kmaq to ask for your help in preserving our language,” said Grand Keptin Antle Denny. Young people do not learn their mother tongue; indeed the new mother tongue is English for about 70 per cent of Mi’kmaq. Their historic tongue will be extinct within 20 years.

What the Jesuits can do about that is not clear. Yet the Mi’kmaq were on to something — there is a longstanding connection between Christian missionaries and the preservation and enrichment of indigenous languages.

Tough on trafficking

The 18-year-old woman arrived from Africa to begin a new life working in a Vancouver hair salon. At least, that was the promise.

But when she landed, according to police, her employer confiscated her passport and used threats and intimidation to force the young woman to work seven days a week, 18 hours a day as an unpaid household servant. A virtual slave. She lived that way for a year, alone and terrified, before escaping to a women’s shelter.

Her ordeal has resulted in a Vancouver woman facing charges of human trafficking, a crime that is rampant around the world. The United Nations estimates that more than 2.4 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. It is a $32-billion global industry, behind only drug smuggling and gun-running as the most lucrative international criminal activities. It thrives because the world abounds with poor, vulnerable people who are easily exploited, but also because for every victim lured or snatched from their home there is someone willing to acquire human cargo.

Catholics are once again embracing meatless Fridays

Fish’n’chips, anyone? It’s either that or, given the preponderance of Indian takeout in England today, vegetable samosas and prawn curry for Catholics on Friday come this fall.

Last week the Catholic bishops of England and Wales decided to bring back Friday abstinence from meat, an initiative of potentially enormous significance. The abandonment of Friday abstinence was one of the great pastoral blunders in history, a self-inflicted neutering of Catholic identity and an assault on our own tradition. Its restoration marks a sign of increasing Catholic confidence and common sense.

According to the universal law of the Church, all Fridays, save for those which coincide with solemn feasts (e.g. St. John the Baptist this year), are days of abstinence — no eating meat. But the Code of Canon Law permits the bishops of various countries to modify the rule. Most countries did just that some 40 years ago, saying that while the obligation to do penance held, each Catholic could choose for himself what that penance might be.

The upshot was that Friday communal penance disappeared almost entirely. Not completely — I often eat at the cathedral in Kingston where, like many religious houses, there is no meat on Fridays, and at our chaplaincy activities at Newman House the students themselves are attentive to Friday abstinence. Yet most Catholics don’t observe it, and several generations may not have even heard about it.

In England, the noted historian Eamon Duffy, a self-styled Catholic liberal, called for the return of Friday abstinence in 2004, writing in the flagship journal of all things Catholic and trendy, The Tablet.

“Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority,” he wrote.

The trend of abolishing distinctive marks of Catholic identity now seems dated. In 1967, when getting rid of compulsory Friday abstinence, the English bishops wrote: “While an alternative dish is often available, it is questioned whether it is advisable in our mixed society for a Catholic to appear singular in this matter. Non-Catholics know and accept that we do not eat meat on Fridays, but often they do not understand why we do not, and in consequence regard us as odd.”

By “odd” the bishops of the day meant “different,” and by different, they meant not Protestant. In a desire to fit in, to seem less, well, Catholic, the English bishops made themselves, in fact, less Catholic.

Today though, any Catholic serious about his faith wants to be different from the toxic culture in which he lives. Being different is helped by doing things differently. The spiritual purpose of Friday abstinence is a communal penance to recall the Lord’s passion, but as a marker of Catholic identity it is far more needed now than 50 years ago when it was universally observed.

Friday abstinence gives us a chance for mutual encouragement and public witness. Invited for dinner on Friday? It permits us to mention ahead of time that we don’t eat meat — an indirect way of saying that my Catholic faith is important, and that I am not ashamed of it. After all, if one can proudly announce that one doesn’t eat beef because bovine flatulence is causing climate change, abstaining from meat in recollection of the redemption of the whole world seems reasonable enough.

And if the world should think us odd? We then find ourselves in the tradition of St. Paul, who was willing to be thought a fool for Christ. Moreover, the far greater danger is that the world does not think us odd for being Catholic, given what the world considers normal.

In recent years, the practice of voluntary Friday abstinence has become more prevalent, especially among younger Catholics who are precisely seeking a greater sense of Catholic identity and for ways of bringing their faith into their daily lives. Friday abstinence is a relatively easy way to give witness at work, at school and even in the family.

It’s not a terribly great sacrifice, if at all. As a boy I looked forward to Friday dinners as the aforementioned prawn curry and other fish and seafood dishes were my favourites. It can pinch at times, but at least a pinch of penance needs to be part of every Christian life, especially on Fridays.

The new primate of Canada, Archbishop Gérald Lacroix of Quebec City, wears a small fish hook pin on his lapel. It’s a symbol of the new evangelization; he’s a fisher of men. Fish on Friday can be a wider reminder too of who we are and our evangelical mission.

(Fr. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island and chaplain at Newman House at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)

Let the debate begin

A record turnout of some 15,000 pro-life supporters cheered former Liberal MP Pat O’Brien at the annual March for Life when he proclaimed on Parliament Hill that the abortion debate is back on.

O’Brien may be correct to sense a change in temperature. While still no heat wave, pressure is building for Stephen Harper’s new Conservative majority to initiate the national debate shunned by successive Parliaments since a 1988 Supreme Court decision overturned Canada’s abortion laws.

This reluctance to debate an issue of such fundamental importance is, of course, a travesty. It is Canada’s shame that it is the only Western democracy with no laws on abortion. A woman is legally entitled to receive an on-demand abortion at any point during pregnancy.

This sorry state persists despite support from only a small minority of Canadians. A poll this month by Abacus  Data of Ottawa showed 59 per cent of Canadians (and 63 per cent of women) support enacting restrictions on abortion against just 22 per cent who endorse the status quo. For most, the question isn’t whether Canada should have abortion laws; it’s a matter of how new laws should be framed.

Yet politicians, infuriatingly, frustratingly, refuse to initiate the debate. That was the case under Liberal majorities and Conservative minorities, but even with a new majority and a socially conservative caucus largely sympathetic to calls for abortion legislation, Harper sounds reluctant to budge.

“As long as I am prime minister we are not opening the abortion debate,” Harper said during the recent election campaign. “The government will not bring forward any such legislation and any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am prime minister.”

Although that sounds definitive and although we generally expect politicians to keep election promises, we urge Harper to reconsider.

When the Supreme Court overturned the abortion laws in 1988 it was not because it favoured an anything-goes abortion policy. The court believed it was the role of Parliament to draft abortion legislation to conform with the Charter. But Parliament has repeatedly shirked its duty.

The debate should be about more than abortion law. If an outright ban is not achievable — Catholics may have to swallow that Canadians overwhelmingly support early term abortion — the debate must include a discussion of non-abortion options for distressed women. Abortion is too often the first choice rather than last option. That has to change.

Even if Harper won’t reopen the abortion debate, government has a moral obligation to provide women with medical, financial and social programs to support them through pregnancy. Public funds that currently prop up the abortion industry should be spent on support programs for pregnant women.

This debate is long overdue. Maybe it’s not here yet, but we sense that it’s coming.

{iarelatednews articleid="5550,5549,5511"}

A fair and proper ruling

A recent decision by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal could provide a valuable precedent in future challenges to the religious freedom rights of Catholic organizations.

As reported in The Register April 24, the complaint to the Ontario human rights body was made by a parishioner of a church in Eastern Ontario who disagreed with the placement of a pro-life message on church property. The case between the Chevaliers de Colombe (Knights of Columbus) and Marguerite Dallaire stems from a monument and inscription on the lawn of the Church of St-Jean Baptiste in l’Original, Ont., stating (in French) “Let us pray that all life rests in the hands of God from conception until death.”

Ms. Dallaire complained to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that “the inscription is offensive and discriminatory because it denounces, victimizes and excludes women.” Her application, and the tribunal’s decision, make it clear that she disagrees with the Church on the matter of abortion.