Paul Donovan, principal of Loyola High School in Montreal. Photo: Graham Hughes for National Post
Until 2008, the curriculum of Montreal’s (private) Catholic Loyola High School included a course called “Morals and World Religions” (MWR). MWR taught students the basic history and tenets of other major religions from the Catholic perspective, which is presumably what the students’ parents were paying for.
In 2008, however, Quebec introduced a province-wide program called Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) running throughout elementary school, and all but one high school year. Every Quebec student — even the homeschooled — is obligated to take this state-composed program. And teachers, whatever their beliefs or religious affiliation, must teach it.
The ERC’s mandate is to introduce students to Quebec’s diversity of religions and cultures with “absolute respect for every religious position.” As a short perusal of ERC’s culturally relativistic texts makes clear, Wicca, Raëlism, aboriginal animism or even a student’s own invented religion are all accorded equal spiritual standing with Christianity. This is an untenable intellectual perspective, and obviously one that stands in opposition to Catholic teachings. Yet no child may be exempted on grounds that the ERC might negatively impact confidence in his own religion.
Loyola sought an institutional exemption, arguing that the school taught the same substantive knowledge as ERC in their MWR course. The ministry denied the request. Loyola pursued a legal challenge on Charter grounds of religious freedom. At trial, the Quebec attorney general contended that the Charter applies to individuals; religious corporations, such as a Jesuit school, he argued, are not entitled to freedom of religion.
The presiding lower court judge, Justice Dugré, disagreed with Quebec’s position. He ruled that the forced replacement of MRW would undermine Loyola’s own sense of identity and religious character, even stating that Quebec’s supersession of ERC over Loyola’s teaching commitments was “totalitarian in nature.”
But Quebec’s Court of Appeal then overturned the lower court’s ruling. Unless resolved otherwise by the Supreme Court, it means that a government can compel a faith community to jettison its driving beliefs in order to promote the state’s secular religion of multiculturalism; or indeed, in the future, to compel promotion of any other theory or belief the state may wish to substitute for a faith community’s convictions.
If the “Catholic perspective” mocked or refuted other routes to spiritual fulfilment, the Court of Appeal decision would be correct. On the contrary, though, the Catholic understanding of faith is far richer and more respectful of religion than that presented in the ERC, which comes at the subject from a secular perspective, and essentially ignores the whole concept of “faith” altogether.
To Quebec’s education ministry, religion is a cultural preference, not a deeply held core belief. For Catholics, on the other hand, everyone who is a Catholic or a member of another religious faith —or even atheistic — is respected as a spiritual pilgrim on a profound journey in pursuit of truth.
In view of its raison d’être, Loyola finds itself caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. As Douglas Farrow, professor of Christian Thought at McGill University and an expert witness in the case, put it to me: “Were the Loyola community to accede to this demand, it would not only be violating its conscience, but also allowing that the Court stands above its conscience … This it cannot do and remain Catholic in any meaningful sense.”
The stated objective of the ERC program is to “cultivate the recognition of others and pursuit of the common good.” Must the “recognition of others” preclude a special attachment to one’s own heritage?
As for “pursuit of the common good,” it was a religion, not a state, after all, that gave all of mankind the Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would be done by.” Surely that is the pursuit of the common good par excellence. The onus should therefore be on Quebec to prove Loyola’s MWR was failing to meet objectives that were already Catholic objectives before they were Quebec’s objectives.
The replacement of the Catholicism-friendly MWR with the Catholicism-banalizing ERC is not, as the Court of Appeal claims, the imposition of a pedagogical curriculum like any other. It is the abrogation of the Charter provision for freedom of religion, and sets a disquieting precedent for other faith-based corporations. The lower-court justice was correct: Quebec’s position smacks of totalitarianism. The Court of Appeal ruling should not, and hopefully will not stand.
Barbara Kay is a columnist for the National Post, Canada, where this article was first published.