Saturday, July 23, 2005

“Wandering Between Two Worlds”: A Few Practical Suggestions for Canadians following the Same-sex Marriage Change.

In the past few days I have been contacted by various people and groups to ask, “What should we do now that Same-sex Marriage is law in Canada?”

Of course, the issues are bigger and deeper than merely same-sex marriage and the institutional overhaul needed in Canada long predates the relatively recent moves for same-sex marriage. However, in addressing some specific matters relevant to the institutional overhaul several will touch on same-sex marriage.

What follows therefore is a list of practical questions going forward that I think ought to be of interest to all Canadians irrespective of where they stand on the same-sex marriage question, what political party (if any) they support and whether or not they are people of religious belief or not. The questions concern all of us.

Here is a short list of key questions to which others can be added:

1. Generally, how can the public dimensions of religions and public functioning of religious believers (and those wishing to act upon conscience) be maintained in the face of an ever more successful secularism?

2. More specifically, how can religious groups and individual religious believers most effectively witness to what they believe to be the truth of male/female marriage (or other concepts - - the sanctity of life, etc.) against new public norm(s) that will speak against their views (and them) at every turn?

3. How will religious groups and individual religious believers create better arguments about the nature of the public order as against an increasingly aggressive "monism of meaninglessness" (the phrase is George Grant’s) that uses the language of diversity to effect monism, tolerance intolerance and equality “trump rights”?

4. How can religious groups and individual religious believers begin to assemble within public systems or alongside them alternative delivery systems that better reflect diversity and tolerance for various communities in Canada by allowing their own (legal) beliefs to frame the ethos of the endeavors. In other words, what can members of the public do who wish to encourage different approaches to such things as “public education” and “public health” in face of an increasingly unfair exclusion from funding? Access to tax money should be fair for all groups;

5. How can religious groups and religious believers best show that the newly created "public norm” of same-sex marriage is one that they do not accept and is one that ought not to dominate public presentations of what marriage is and that to insist on public acceptance of this norm is deeply antagonistic to their religious beliefs and freedom as citizens?

6. How can religious groups and religious believers show most effectively, in law and politics, that "dignity" does not reside in public acceptance for dogmatic beliefs?

Societies will find various ways and means of finding a public equilibrium on these contested issues. Canada at the moment appears to be, in the words of the poet Matthew Arnold over a century ago, “wandering between two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born.” (Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse, [1855] st. 15). We need to find the power to change things.

In Canada, even if there is a notwithstanding declaration under Section 33 of the Charter (permitting maintenance of a heterosexual definition of marriage for five years) or if there is a Constitutional amendment preserving marriage to males and females (as some hope), the likelihood of either of which I have no idea, the important questions above remain. We are being drawn towards developing a set of practical rules and guidelines for the tolerance and diversity Canada has preached for so long but shows little appetite, will or capacity to put into practice.

The continued dominance of “public” realms by ideologies not supported by “the public” cannot long continue. First, and we see this already; such asymmetries will lead to further anger and cynicism. This will be followed by further withdrawal and attempts to set up parallel systems. This is already happening in education and will happen in health care eventually.

What will result along the way, however, unless genuine diversity and fairness are put into practice, is fragmentation and a further reduction in our understanding of what we share as citizens. The rhetoric of diversity and tolerance should be followed by real steps to grant diversity and tolerance in all public spheres in Canadian society. It may be that the best way to assist the public going forward is to rethink what we mean by “public” in “public health” and “public education” and then change the systems accordingly.

There is a lot of work to be done but the first phase is over. We have seen what is not working.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 96
Iain T. Benson©

Friday, July 22, 2005

Why Conscience and Religion have to Be Held Together

It is a common blind spot for religious believers to forget that other believers (atheists, agnostics and so on) have their rights as well and that the freedom to be extended to non-religious believers is significant, just as significant in terms of law and public policy as that extended to religious believers.

Still, so many fail to see this or comprehend it. Worse, they may disagree with it, thinking that religious beliefs have some privileged place in society worthy of greater protection than the beliefs of atheists and agnostics. This is a serious error.

In the brilliant screenplay by Robert Bolt for the film A Man for All Seasons, the following exchange takes place between Thomas More and his future son in law Roper. What it says is significant for conscience as well as religion. Here is the exchange.

ROPER: Then you set Man’s law above God’s

MORE: No far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact – I’m not God, the currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain-saling, I can’t navigate, I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh there I’m a forester. I doubt if there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God….

ALICE: [exasperated, pointing after Rich]: while you talk, he’s gone?

MORE: And go he should if he was the devil himself until he broke the law!

ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes, What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – Man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Now many religious people would agree with this because they understand that the laws are there for the just and the unjust. I’d like to suggest here that they have not applied this logic to the protection of conscience and the laws protecting that.

For all citizens have the right to the freedom of conscience - - why should only religious citizens have this? There is no good reason. The extension of conscience protection states that we recognize the importance of freedom to make conscientious decisions for everyone. What sort of concept of God could a person have who does not believe there is a freedom to choose for or against God?

Exactly. The freedom that most Christians believe God gave us to choose Him is no less for those who have chosen (so far) not to accept him. If this is so for the biggest question of all (belief or not in God) how can it be less for the other questions of life as a citizen in society?

It is time that Christians and religious groups generally started reminding themselves that when they advocate for the freedom of religion and the protection of religion (as they should) they should also be advocating for the freedom of conscience and the protection of conscience for everyone - - whether or not they are religious believers.

That our Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains the protection for “conscience and religion” in Section 2 merely supports this argument.

So when we advocate, as we should, for the protection of the religious rights of people in society (such as Marriage Commissioners) we must remember those in society who might hold the same office and not have religious convictions but, as in the Marriage Commissioner case, also object to marrying same-sex people. The same principles apply to all public offices and all citizens religious or non: they have the right to have their beliefs accommodated up to the point of "undue hardship".

CENTREBLOG: Volume 95
Iain T. Benson ©


Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Appearing Before the Senate Standing Committee on Bill C-38 (same-sex marriage)

On July 14, 2005, just over a month from my appearance before the House Committee on Bill C-38, I appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legislative Affairs. The House appearance led to amendments; my hope was that the Senate would be equally solicitous.

These hopes were in vain. The Senate was in too much of a rush to be the sober chamber of second thought envisioned by John A. MacDonald so many years ago.

The invitation to appear before them was finally confirmed by the Clerk of the Committee on the Friday before the Tuesday I was to appear. The Senate was in a great rush to get the Bill passed. Everyone hoped that there was a chance they would suggest some badly needed amendments to the Bill. Fat chance as it turned out.

The hearing itself was a dignified process with the usual formality of such things. Translation, time periods for opening witness statements (10 minutes) and then limited questioning from Senators who sought to get their name on the Speaker’s list.

As the M.P.’s before the House Committee, several of the Senators seemed interested as to why religious groups were concerned about a mere “civil marriage” extension.

The transcript will give the details since the Senate Committee meetings were not televised. A rare exception was made the day after our panel presentation when Cardinal Ouellette of Montreal was to appear. Other testimonies and exchanges were captured only by text.

The overall atmosphere was one of measured consideration though the contempt some of the Senators have for religion in general and Catholicism in particular was fairly obvious. The rolling of eyes and theatrical sighs of some Senators will not be captured in the transcript but were evident in the Hearing room. Senators are appointed and got there, usually, for being political supporters. It was good to keep this in mind.

The witnesses throughout the day were intelligent and articulate and all affirmed the right of religious people to dissent from same-sex marriage if they wished to. Time will tell if this is simply window dressing and whether such people will eventually speak out when religious positions are deemed bigoted and discriminatory. Should this happen, as many predict, it will be a good idea to hold these people accountable - - if they are still around; Professor Bruce Ryder for example.

I sat through the entire day’s proceedings which was a good idea as it gave me a chance to hear what the Senator’s themselves were hearing. It was the usual rhetoric of the benefits of recognition to be given from the same-sex inclusion to marriage versus those who say that the inclusion is not a simple inclusion and will dissolve a previously shared understanding.

In my own testimony later, I suggested that there were various views about same-sex marriage inclusion that were “naive.” This did not go down well with several Senators who were not used to having their views criticized this way. I provided chapter and verse showing that there is a strategy out there to attack marriage and the family. I was careful to say that not all same-sex marriage activists support the attack on heterosexual only marriage and the heterosexually based family, but I did not hold back from giving evidence that some do wish to see traditional marriage destroyed.

Some of the Senators did not like this. They wished to occupy the rosy- lens land of their own creating undisturbed by inharmonious colour combinations. This was the effect of all the panellists on the panel I was on.

It was, except for me, a panel of McGill Professors: Margaret Somerville, Kathyrn Young and Daniel Cere. They are all experts in different aspects of the marriage debates and the effect of a same-sex marriage change on the family, children and culture. All have been attacked for their positions and maintain them courageously against the Zeitgeistian waves.

They were listened to but not given questions that were up to the level of the points they had made. The Senators’ questions were not impressive and, on occasion, were superficial and embarrassing. They did not show great insight or the ability to rise beyond the cheap pre-packaged rhetoric of the day. It was most disappointing.

My own evidence took the form of suggesting some minor but important amendments to the Bill where it was clear that the Bill contained errors and omissions. Those comments can be found in the Brief to the Senate which is on the Centre’s website (click here).

Following the panel (we were the last ones of the day) I was taken to one side by a Senator and told that “of course” all that we have said and all that anyone would say would be “of no use” since “the Government wants the Bill passed right away and has told the Senate that.”

I asked whether there was any sense of the independence of the Senate or the proper process still alive and was told that it was effectively dead.

It is fashionable to speak of a democratic deficit in certain western countries. Canada has more than that. It is a country increasingly ruled by spin and craft against the honest review of major issues. We are a country in deep decline.

That the matters raised by my fellow panellists (the effects on children and society) have been overlooked systematically by courts and politics shows that Canada is now on course to be ruled by those who can command rhetoric against the force of analysis. This is a sad day for Canada and we can justly lament where this is leading us.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 94
Iain T. Benson ©

Friday, July 08, 2005

London Terrorist Bombings and a Muslim Response

Lest there be any confusion, some Muslims are condemning the terrorist activities of those bitter little (and not so little) boys and girls who use their ethnic and religious identity to perpetuate outrages. Here is yesterday’s editorial from Ahmed Nassef on the website “Muslim Wake Up!” and I quote most of it as it is self-explanatory and important.

Mr. Nassef writes:

[Before Tony Blair knew who the group was he accused Muslim terrorists of the London bombings] the important thing is that Muslims are most likely to have done it. We all know it. The world knows it.

The days of hiding behind the Oklahoma bombing, when Muslims were first blamed only to be exonerated when homegrown extremists were arrested for the 1995 attack on the Oklahoma Federal Building, are long gone.

So bring on the condemnations! We have to do it, just so they don’t say later that we were silent. Press releases, press conferences—British Muslims, American Muslims, Canadian Muslims, Muslim governments. Even the Palestinian Islamist group HAMAS condemned the London bombings; "Targeting civilians in their transport means and lives is denounced and rejected," Moussa Abu Marzouk, the group’s political bureau deputy chief said.

It’s all relative, you see.

For HAMAS, killing British civilians is bad form, especially since the group has been holding talks with British government officials (for which they were recently rebuked by Al Qaeda’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri). Israeli civilians, on the other hand, are fair game.

It’s a matter of degrees. Just trust the executioner. He’ll do the right thing.

Two days ago, Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi’s spiritual mentor, Sheik Abu-Mohammed al-Maqdisi , was on Al Jazeera, the Arab news network. He had good things to say about Al Zarqawi, but he thought that he may be overdoing it with his attacks on Iraqi Shi’is. At least don’t attack them in mosques, he said. Shi’is may be bad, but they’re not worth killing, especially not in mosques. Christians and Jews, on the other hand, well… it’s a war of liberation isn’t it?

You disagree with that? If you don’t think Zarqawi and his hoodlums should be the new rulers of Iraq, then you’re likely a collaborator, an agent of occupation, an apostate.

An apostate like Egypt’s ambassador to Iraq, Ihab Sherif; "The sharia court of al-Qaeda in Iraq has decided to hand over the apostate, the ambassador of Egypt which is allied to Jews and Christians, to the mujahideen to carry out the punishment of the apostate ... and to kill him," his captors declared yesterday before making good on their promise today. He is survived by a wife and two daughters.

Being allied to Jews and Christians is now a crime of apostasy to these guardians of the faith, who might have also declared the Prophet Muhammad an apostate for having sought the protection of a Christian king and for having signed an agreement with Jews.

But then the Prophet was not as pure as these people.

They kill. We condemn.

May God forgive us for what we have done to our religion of mercy and compassion.

(Ahmed Nassef is Editor-in-Chief of muslimwakeup.com)


Of course, no human community is free of outrages being perpetuated in the name of its principles of justice and fidelity whether they are oriented (as they are in all the great religions) towards allegiance to Divinity or towards the claims of justice not so oriented.

Alas, hatred and outrage is an equal opportunity employer. It will take another blog to spell out some of the reasons that Islamicism is doing what it is doing around the globe today. The editorial above shows, however, that there are voices that condemn such actions within the Muslim community and that is, on any reading, a sign of hope for it is on such beachheads, however small, that proper responses can be launched.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 93
Iain T. Benson©

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Summer Reading and the work of James V. Schall: Another Sort of Learning

There is an important writer still alive amongst us. He will be 80 in a few years. He has written hundreds of articles and thousands of columns and hundreds of books and contributions to the books of others. Some years ago, I was sent a manuscript of his and asked to review it for a Press in the USA. It didn’t take me long (a few pages) to see that this was a book of serious import on another important writer - - G.K. Chesterton, and the book was duly published as Schall on Chesterton (Catholic University of America Press, 2000).

There is a website that contains his complete bibliography, some recordings of his lectures and recent reviews of his most recent book, Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (which I have not yet seen).

This blog is merely to introduce those who do not know of this wonderful thinker and writer to his work and, particularly, at this time of the year – when, school and university ended, there may be an hour or two for young people to read something important - - in short, to recommend “ a good read” and a short one.

So, without further ado, please have a look at a free booklet, of only some 18 pages, available on the web at this cite: http://www.isi.org/college_guide/student_guides/liberallearning.pdf .

Sit back and read it and pass it along to all the young students (or older students) you know who might spend a few minutes to read its 18 pages. It is what it says it is: A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning and it should be much more widely known.

Once you discover James Schall, you have discovered an ocean of wisdom and insight. His book, Another Sort of Learning (Ignatius, 1988) I consider one of the finest guides to good reading available (it gives book lists under a wide variety of topics) and At the Limits of Political Philosophy (Catholic University of America, 1996), another excellent book as to what questions are properly political and why.

Since there is no crediting why some books go out of print and others stay in print, it is important to realize that some of Schall’s books might have to be found at good used book stores and the easiest way to access these now is on the net at www.abe.com. But don’t let that stop you. Recall that the search for a good book especially if used and out of print is a species of adventure or, as Chesterton once said: “all adventures are inconveniences rightly considered…”

Happy summer reading. May the Schall be with you!

CENTREBLOG: Volume 92
Iain T. Benson ©

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Reading Down of Conscience Protection

A pharmacist who has been doing excellent work trying to shine light into some of the more restrictive corners of the Pharmacy profession in Canada - - Cristina Alarcon, who gave a presentation at the Centre/Simon Fraser Conference recently, sends an interesting article from the recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

After commenting that at least 45 States have conscience clause legislation (badly needed across Canada), the author makes the following statement:

For health care professionals, the question becomes: What does it mean to be a professional in the United States? Does professionalism include the rather old-fashioned notion of putting others before oneself? Should professionals avoid exploiting their positions to pursue an agenda separate from that of their profession? And perhaps most crucial, to what extent do professionals have a collective duty to ensure that their profession provides nondiscriminatory access to all professional services? [ R. Alta Charo, “The Celestial Fire of Conscience – Refusing to Deliver Medical Care” NEJM (Volume 352 : 2471-2473) June 16, 2005].

Short quiz. What do you see to be the central assumption made in the above passage?

Did you answer: “the assumption that there is one ‘professional standard’” ?

If you did, then you are right. This is the standard line from those who wish to frustrate the proper accommodation of conscience and religion. Resist accommodation by insisting on “one standard” and “non-discriminatory access” to the “service” sought.

It is our old friend “convergence pluralism” again - - this time in medical ethics. Hey, remember Frank Archer a few years back? He was the “ethicist” advising the Canadian pharmacists that they could not impose their views of “emergency contraception” (morning after pill - - an abortifacient such as used to be rejected by the Hippocratic Oath as against medical ethics until some modern ethicists decided to reject that part of the oath….so things progress). Anyway, Frank Archer (just ‘google’ him if you want to see the responses written to his infamous Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal article) took the same line.

It boils down to “one size fits all.” This may be great for summer beach towels, but hardly works where society has controversial ethical matters and supposedly seeks to protect them. One says “supposedly” because articles like this one in the NEJM and the one by Frank Archer a few years ago show that “one size fits all” is the latest attempt to force the views of some on everyone and that is, itself, discriminatory, totalitarian and unethical itself.

These folks completely fail to see that there are two autonomies involved - - provider of the “service” as well as the seeker of the service; they do this to get their dominant view forced through and their approach is simply wrong - - even if it is now getting prominent billing in prestigious medical journals.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 91
Iain T. Benson©