The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
Religion and morality: it has often been assumed that the two are closely linked, but with changes in social attitudes and the fragmentation and decline in religious belief, newly complicated questions have arisen. Current in Manitoba is disagreement about the government’s Bill 18, the Safe and Inclusive Schools Act, which is designed to reduce or prevent bullying.
One point at issue is whether schools must allow groups designed to promote gender equity and gay-straight alliances. Groups like the Evangelical Federation of Canada argue that there are more important causes of bullying than gender and sexual preference. The more or less unspoken issue is that these churches regard homosexual activity as forbidden by God and scripture and feel persecuted by laws that defend a different assumption.
Vic Toews, taking time off from giving Canada a more punitive (and more expensive) criminal justice system, has argued that parts of Bill 18 are attacks on freedom of religion and should be considered invalid under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Is a faith-based school exempt from the censuring of hate-speech? Does sincerity guarantee their pre-emptive assertion of access to divinity?
The place of religion in a democracy is a vexed one. The United States explicitly separates church and state, yet it’s unlikely that any American politician would dare to declare himself an atheist. There is nothing in Canadian law to make churches exempt from the provisions of that law, but traditionally, if a refugee family takes shelter in a church, the authorities will not remove them.
Among the homosexuals I’ve known over the years some have been sincere Christians who lived respectable middle class lives. I was once at an anniversary party so respectable as to make me feel downright raffish. Other homosexual friends and acquaintances have been regular visitors to the gay bars and baths and may have regarded me as a little prim.
Sex is a physical and emotional hunger that gets itself satisfied in varied and sometimes downright comical ways. It has links to disease and procreation that raise the stakes, make it rife with consequences. Perhaps that makes it a moral concern or at least a social one.
But it’s not just issues involving sexual behaviour that confront religion and morality. Recently the New York Review of Books published a review by Garry Wills, a professor of history and a practising Roman Catholic though highly critical of the church hierarchy, in which he discussed a book on the development of Catholic teaching on the Jews.
“The history of Christian viciousness toward Jews is too grotesque for credence,” he writes. In the past, acts of astonishing violence were based on what has been called the blood libel, the crazed belief that human blood was used to make matzos for Passover. Theological anti-Semitism argued that Judaism was an incomplete religion which required the person of Jesus to make it complete. No doubt such doctrines were sincerely believed. But by 1965 all this had been abandoned. Change came about through the Second Vatican Council called by the magnanimous Pope John XXIII.
John XXIII died before the Council had completed its work, and as Wills points out (back to morality and sex again) one thing that didn’t get changed was the absurd church doctrine declaring contraception a mortal sin. The church could make no change without asserting that earlier popes had been wrong, and nobody has been prepared to do that.
Churches, no matter how intent on eternity, tend to cling to the past and to the conventional beliefs of their time. Just think of the residential schools, which a number of Canadian churches ran, believing them to be appropriate. When I was young homosexuality was against the law. Even though it’s now widely accepted, the Evangelical churches still believe that they have a divine dispensation to oppose toleration; but the community of dogmatic belief is a dangerous thing, too easily justifying hardness of heart.