23 October, 2009

Je me souvien

“Je me souviens” Working as I do within the beauty of the Ottawa Valley, I see many cars pass by from “la belle province” emblazoned with the motto “je me souviens” imprinted on each licence plate. These words are a declaration of the desire of the majority francophone population to always “remember” the struggles of “la révolution tranquille” (the Quiet Revolution) which transformed the Quebec society into the modern secular state under which the francophone population, seemingly all at once, turned a deaf ear to the voice of the Catholic Church within their culture, and chose instead to heed only the siren cry of the modern secularist project. In the wake this rapid shift the Catholic Church has been rendered both impotent and irrelevant in the minds of the overwhelming majority of the Quebec population, such that within the few years that have followed the Quiet Revolution, almost 400 years of Catholic practice was wiped away. The most graphic illustration of this shift can be seen in statistics re: church attendance (from the high 80% or more in 1960 to approximately 5%-10% today). The Quebec society is also more advanced in implementing the modern secular agenda: legalization of same-sex marriages, abortions, and the stripping of religion from the public. The parallel to the situation within the English Canadian Catholic Church of today is similar to the situation in Quebec in the 60’s, though at first blush one might have difficulty seeing in the connection. Then it was young academics and labour leaders such as Pierre Trudeau and Jean Marchand, educated in church run colleges who led the charge towards the “modernization” of the French project within Quebec. Having drunk deeply from the chalice of philosophy, reason and justice that they studied in catholic schools, they stepped forward as leaders who took unto themselves the responsibilities and services once offered through the offices of the Church as one by one they were being seconded from the care of the church to the state on a permanent basis. Perhaps like any parent who sees their child begin to make a name for themselves the Bishops, religious and clergy of Quebec sat back in silence, marveling at the success of their efforts to create a genuine francophone body of leaders who would ensure the survival of the “French fact”. Alas, the children of this effort did not share in the values of their “spiritual” parents. With an amazing rapidity, the church found that their absence from the secular debates of the day had led the majority of the population to reject the moral authority of the church to speak to the issues of the day. With this, the patricide inflicted upon the church doomed the church to being relegated to the sidelines for the foreseeable future. This same process is happening again, only this time it is not a societal debate about the virtues of secularism or the role of Catholic institutions. Nor is it an expression of a collective pent up anger in the face of centuries of clericalism. Rather the moral suasion of the church is being rapidly eroded by the litany of sex abuse scandals that confront the Catholic Church. The unwillingness of our spiritual leaders to forcefully and actively engage in the societal debate that has erupted in the wake of this moral crisis resembles the tactics and strategies that failed so spectacularly not so long ago in Quebec. There have been exceptions. Archbishop Anthony Mancini (Halifax) addressed this issue forcefully with an emotionally charged letter to Catholics in his Diocese in the wake of the 2009 Bishop Raymond Lahey pornography scandal. Other sometimes use the levers afforded them within both new and traditional media forums at their disposal to proffer the Catholic voice on important questions of the day. When called upon, Bishop Fred Henry (Calgary) has used these media to great effect. Sadly though, these examples seem to be few and far between within our national Episcopacy. Too often commentary and positions are relegated to theological pronouncements and moral teachings that are issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishop (CCCB), speaking as it does (in theory) as the Bishops’ collective voice. The problem with this practice is two fold: first, these statements tend to be presented in language more appropriate for a scholarly theological discussion than can be fruitful in addressing the rising tide of anger within the citizenry as a whole in the face of revelations of sexual abuse. I am reminded of the posters that were popular in the 70’s: “A Camel is a horse designed by a committee”, or perhaps more appropriate to this case, “God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee”. Further, by ceding to the CCCB the sole authoritative national voice in explaining the Churches stance, the Bishops are “passing the buck” by not fulfilling their obligations to preach, teach and protect the faithful to the best of their abilities. Seemingly afraid to stand out from amongst their brother bishops, they have rendered themselves impotent in guiding the faithful through these difficult waters. The Bishops of English speaking Canada should heed the voices that have been silenced in Quebec, lest “je me souviens” become a lament of the English side of the Catholic Church which seems to be squandering away the work and witness of countless millions who have lived the faith in our fair land. Canadian Catholic deserves more from their religious leaders. It is time for each of them to find the courage and wisdom to engage in the questions of the day, both individually and collectively, using every lever at their disposal, before it’s too late. May they will heed the lessons learned from the silence of their French confreres 40 years ago and not repeat that same mistake again.

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