Add me to the anybody-but-Ford slate

Toronto mayoral hopeful Rob Ford first appeared on my political radar screen late last spring, when I chaired an all-candidates meeting on the topic of architecture and urban design. Held at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the session was sponsored by the Pug Awards people, who celebrate artistic achievement in our city’s built form.

Ford’s performance that evening was remarkable. While the other candidates at least took stabs at the questions I asked about urban planning and the quality of the city’s architectural environment, Ford ignored both the questions and every attempt on my part to get him to answer them. Instead, he relentlessly repeated the mantra that has characterized his whole campaign: cut costs, cut staff, cut the size of city council — cut, cut, cut.

Benedict’s UK shows how far Church has come in dealing with abuse

It used to be the only news. Apparently it is now old news. But there was something new when Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain.

The issue is sexual abuse by priests. In the run up to the papal visit to the United States in April 2008, it dominated the commentary. What would the Pope do? What would the Pope say? The Holy Father addressed the issue forthrightly on the plane en route, spoke about it a half dozen times in his formal addresses, and then met with a group of victims in a private, prayerful and emotional meeting. He did the same thing in Australia later that summer. His approach was well received by most.

Religion vs. agnostic know-nothings

Not long ago I was invited, along with half a dozen other men, to debate the proposition: “Resolved: That agnosticism is the only honest religious position.”

It was an old-fashioned evening — shades of the 1860 debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley when Huxley said he would rather be descended from an ape than from a bishop (alas, an often sympathetic position) — but it was enjoyable all the same. Afterwards, one participant remarked: “I didn’t know people met to discuss serious questions.”

Each participant got five minutes to state his position without interruption. When all had finished, everyone could intervene freely to probe or comment upon what others had said. Then followed a free-for-all discussion. The format worked well. After precisely two hours, we shut off debate, had a cup of tea, and departed into the night.

I contended that the proposition that agnosticism is the only honest religious position, while useful to provoke discussion, suffered three basic flaws: it is an oxymoron; it is contrary to human experience and therefore likely to be false; and  it is a placebo for the spiritually timid.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines agnosticism as the belief that nothing beyond material phenomena can possibly be known.

Given that definition, the proposition is an oxymoron. It refutes itself. If nothing about religion can reliably be known, then it cannot be known whether anything about religion can reliably be known. If it is impossible to decide the truth or falsity of religious claims, then it is impossible to decide whether agnosticism is a preferable religious claim to even the narrowest or most fanatical religious prejudice.

Keep our word

maternal healthWith much fanfare a decade ago, international leaders unveiled a noble 15-year blueprint  to reduce world suffering. The ambitious plan, named Millennium Development Goals, heralded significant reduction in poverty and hunger, expansion of primary education and gender equality, investment in child and maternal health and HIV/AIDS, and achievement of environmental sustainability.

It was a bold undertaking launched before 9/11 sent many richer nations to war and before international financiers sent the world into recession. Without those crises, the challenge was daunting. With them, it became Herculean.

He came so Britons might hear the Gospel

LONDON, ENGLAND - As per usual, it went better than expected. For veterans of papal travel, the routine is now well known. In advance of one of Pope Benedict’s trips, there is much wringing of hands about how badly things will go, how difficult things will be, how hostile a particular country is. Then the Pope arrives with his shy gestures and kindly manners, no one is frightened and everything is pronounced a success.

End the debate

euthanasiaQuebecers have seldom felt obligated to be in step with the rest of Canada, so the road show currently marching across La Belle Province is no surprise.

The Quebec government has been holding public hearings across the province on euthanasia and assisted suicide. Ostensibly, this is a fact-finding tour but the name of the committee betrays its true sentiment. It is called the “Dying with Dignity Special Commission,” implying, of course, the odious notion that euthanasia and assisted suicide bring dignity to death.

The predictable protests

Papal tours too often become occasions for anti-Catholic and other anti-religious forces to find a friendly microphone. Before the visit to Britain even began there were indications that a hostile reception might await Pope Benedict. There was even half-serious talk of arresting him for “complicity” in the sex abuse scandal.

Veni Vidi Vici? Benedict in Britain

Every event needs a narrative, and this is oh so true of Pope Benedict XVI’s just completed State visit to Great Britain. Prior to the trip, the buzz was about cost, security, protests and anger. During the trip, the buzz was about attendance at Papal masses, outings, ceremonies and the protests outside, inside and about. Now that the trip is done, the buzz centres on what he accomplished, how and whether the entire exercise was worth the effort? Or as Time Magazine put it, “The Pope vs. Britain’s Secularists: Who Won? Notorious British M.P. George Galloway thinks he has it down and declares that the Pope’s critics and much of the coverage were straight out of another time, when even being Catholic was a treasonous offence, “Pope Bashers are Throwback to 1605”. Dominic Lawson, writing in the Independent takes a different tack and places the credit with the Pope instead of the blame with the critics, noting, “I suspect it is precisely the unpolitical nature of Pope Benedict that gives him a certain popular appeal”. Lawson, a leading British journalist concluded his piece by observing “Humility is perhaps the most difficult of all the virtues; the smuggest among the Pope's secular critics could learn from his example.” David Willey in a blog on the BBC site believes that the entire Vatican is heaving a sigh of relief at a trip well executed and euphoria over besting all expectations and even hopes in “Pope’s Visit is deemed to Challenge Stereotypes”. Paddy Agnew in the Irish Times concurs with Willey’s sentiment noting, “there’s no disguising the Holy See’s satisfaction about the trip". Publications as far away as New Zealand couldn’t help but share in the growing international consensus with a report entitled “ Pope Succeeds in UK Charm Offensive”. Even Prime Minister David Cameron heaped praise on the Pontiff and his visit, noting that the Pope had ‘challenged Britain to sit up and think about the role of religion in society”. Anne Applebaum writing in the Washington Post adds an interesting layer of reflection on Cameron’s sentiment in a thoughtful piece “Anger over papal visit shows religious freedom is alive and well in Britain” which actually does a nice job putting much of the coverage into an interesting perspective.

Stand-offs, Echoes, Assertions: Benedict XVI, John F. Kennedy, Stephen Hawking

Arguably everything in the news the past few weeks has been about the key importance of tolerance and freedom, especially religious tolerance and freedom. Three different moments capture a sense of the forces at work.

 

Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom, which started on Thursday, provoked numerous reflections on the nature of anti-Pope bigotry and it’s deeper uglier anti-Catholic bigotry on the part of Brits and throughout the world. In the first day alone, Benedict made clear that despite the criticism, he was intent on fighting back the tide of secularism and insisting on the need for religious liberty. In his first sermon, the Pope, as is his wont, delved into history for evidence of the evil that can flow from the desire to kill off God and Religion. He was referring to Nazism but it seemed to require a media interpretation to calm the secularists. But as is often the case, the reality of a Papal visit can soothe and charm, though of course the jury is still out.

 

The Papal visit, and its attendant arguments about ‘extreme’ atheism and religious liberty comes in the same week as the 50th anniversary of a critical talk given by John F. Kennedy while running for President. It’s difficult to imagine now, but in that campaign the idea that a Catholic might be President was the subject of bitter debate. And the young candidate traveled to a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association where he delivered a plea and forged an argument about religious tolerance, liberty and the distinctions between “rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God”. By all accounts it defused the issue and made his Presidency possible. But while possibly creating the space for Catholics in politics, the long-term result may have been to render Catholic values in politics difficult, or so argues Archbishop Chaput of Denver and a former Communications officer with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

 

Stephen Hawking creates the third corner of this triangle of tolerance and liberty. The physicist made news this month with the assertions in his new book of the ‘non-necessity of God’ in the creation of the universe. This is a shift from his thinking as expressed in early works. Hawking used to believe the universe needed a prime mover but now believes the Universe came into existence on its own. The list of people unimpressed is extensive and includes philosophers, a Jesuit Physicist and thinker, columnists and theologians. The intriguing think about Hawking and the God issue is the ease with which much of the media assumed that if Hawking says so then it must be so. The reality is that an assertion by Hawking that God didn’t exist is still an assertion, not a fact, which takes us back to the ideas of religious freedoms, religious tolerance and the dangers of extreme atheism.

Sacred masterpieces can help broaden a Catholic's faith

My usual reason for going to Venice has to do with contemporary culture. I went there last month, for example, to write about the 12th Biennale of Architecture for a Canadian magazine. The famous show (which runs until late November) is a fascinating survey of the things advanced architects, artists and theorists in many countries are thinking about these days, and I’m glad I was able to take it in.

But before I left for Venice, I made up my mind to do more than keep my nose to the architectural grindstone — to take some time off, that is, and revisit some old acquaintances among the religious canvases and murals that grace the island city’s churches, historic charitable foundations (called “scuoli”) and public buildings.

A convert priest gave Catholic Church confidence

A country pastor from Wolfe Island doesn’t get to offer the Holy Mass in the private chapel of the archbishop of New York without good reason. On Sept. 8, I had the best reason of all — to give thanks to God for a great priest, valued mentor and dear friend, who became Catholic on that very spot.

Richard John Neuhaus, who died in January 2009, was received into full communion with the Catholic Church on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary (Sept. 8, 1990) 20 years ago by the then-archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor. Richard would be ordained a priest by Cardinal O’Connor a year later.