Nine times out of ten, the religious shenanigans that take place in the United States make Canadian non-theists look across the border, skeptical eyebrows cocked, and say, “For real, you guys?”
But every now and again, there will be a religious brouhaha here in Canada that keeps us Canucks aware of the need for vigilance against the encroachment of religion into governance.
Here’s an example:
Our House of Commons recently passed a bill declaring April 2 “Pope John Paul II Day.” (The date was chosen based on the anniversary of the pontiff’s death in 2005, and not for its proximity to April Fools’ Day.) It’s no joke; Canada’s parliament is serious about honoring this longtime leader of the Catholic Church.
The bill received support from all parties, with only 42 Members of Parliament voting against it, compared to 217 for it. (All 42 opponents were members of the New Democratic Party; you may wish to remember that come election time.) The bill was proposed by Wladislaw Lizon, MP for Mississauga East-Cooksville, who argued that the bill was not religious in nature, but aimed at recognizing all the good acts of the late pontiff:
“… this is a bill to recognize Pope John Paul II’s legacy, which goes well beyond his role in the Catholic Church. He stood for religious tolerance and freedom, and he spent a great deal of time encouraging inter-religious dialogue. To me, this represents a big part of what it means to be Canadian.
“Pope John Paul II proved that nothing is impossible. He stood up for populations that were oppressed by totalitarian regimes. He will be remembered for his role in the collapse of several stifling dictatorships, and for the way he inspired peaceful opposition to communism in Poland, leading to its eventual collapse in Central and Eastern Europe.”
While it’s true that John Paul II did speak up against totalitarian government, particularly in his native country of Poland, the former pope’s legacy is a lot more mixed than Lizon’s oratory suggests.
The list of criticisms leveled at John Paul II is long and includes a wide variety of charges. Some of the most well-known include his opposition to contraceptive use, even condom use, in AIDS-ravaged African communities; his anti-abortion views; his rejection of women as candidates for priesthood; his characterization of gay people as ‘objectively disordered’; and the institutional failure, on his watch, to protect children from clerics’ sexual abuse.
In the later years of his pontificate, John Paul II even lobbied then-Prime-Minister Jean Chretien to prohibit same-sex marriage and restrict abortion and contraception access. The irony is pretty piquant; this pope was known as a tireless fighter against totalitarianism in Communist countries during the Cold War… but would have had no qualms about imposing his own brand of authoritarian rule when it came to the bedrooms of the nation, and worked hard to restrict the freedom and equality of women and LGBT Canadians.
Moreover, John Paul II was a figurehead for a religion that teaches that everyone needs Jesus and the Catholic Church to be saved from eternal torment. That’s par for the course; one hardly expects the leader of a major religion to proclaim the utter irrelevance of his system of belief. But the government needn’t proclaim a national celebration for a religious leader whose teaching excludes Canada’s many Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Wiccans, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Unitarians, Pastafarians, and all the rest. Nor was that exclusionary belief incidental to the work he did as a world figure; rather, it was central to his role on the global stage.
Officially, church-state separation is not part of Canada’s constitution. Maybe it should be. Christians already receive favor in many ways under Canada’s statutory framework. Christmas is a statutory holiday; Yom Kippur and Eid Al-Fitr are not. Some provinces provide government funding for a Catholic school system running parallel to public schools; other religions’ schools are not government-subsidized. This is just one more piece of the puzzle that is Canadian Christian privilege. Special celebration of a uniquely Catholic leader, in the absence of similar recognition for notable leaders of other faiths or no faith, continues to alienate non-Christian Canadians and undercut the official policy of multiculturalism that makes Canada such a vibrant, exciting place to live.
A supporter of the bill, Liberal MP Frank Valeriote, called John Paul II “a model for future generations,” citing as an example the 800,000 people — mostly teens and young adults — who came to see him in Toronto for World Youth Day 2002. (This author, a then-Catholic 19-year-old, was one of them.) Valeriote opined:
“In an age when engagement, particularly youth engagement, is in decline and people are identifying less and less with any religion, it was a powerful and telling testament to his position as a peacemaker and his influence as a leader.”
Well, John Paul II’s influence and leadership aren’t good for much if you disagree with where the youths he “engaged” are being led. In this case, commitment to Catholicism and to John Paul II has led many people — often otherwise decent folk — to fight reproductive choice for women, degrade and shame the queer community, and defend pedophiles, all while assuming (whether smugly or sorrowfully) that their non-Christian neighbors will be thrown in hell at the whim of an omniscient, allegedly loving God.
Call me crazy, but that’s not my vision of Canada’s world-famous tolerance and pluralism.
The Canadian branch of CFI has prepared a petition for concerned readers to sign, calling for the Senate to oppose the bill and prevent it from being passed. The bill has completed the required three readings within the House of Commons and has been referred to the Standing Committee on Regulations and Private Bills.
It’s not yet clear whether the CFI petition will make a difference; us Canucks may be celebrating Pope John Paul II day next spring. In which case, commenter Aliaselpha at the Lousy Canuck blog has a clever back-up plan I heartily endorse: let’s honor Pope Day by educating people about the crimes and injustices supported and enacted by John Paul II and other pontiffs throughout history!
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