By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
Voltaire, the Enlightenment philosophe with a poor regard for Catholicism, once referred to the Catholic Church in these strikingly colourful terms: écrasez l’infâme (crush the loathsome thing).
Voltaire lets you know what he thinks and no ambiguity gets in his way.
But that phrase nicely encapsulates my feelings on the matter of Bill 21, Quebec’s loathsome legislation, a legislation that offends the country with its blanket anti-religious bias disguised as reasonable accommodation, secular neutrality, an enviable via media.
In fact, the law is anything but an informed compromise, designed to carefully navigate the occasionally turbulent seas of religious faith and the civic order. Rather, it is a draconian and deeply cynical effort to address the place of religion in the public square by banning all signs of faith adherence by those in any way representing the state—government, education, the courts. No hijab, no kippa, no turban, no crucifix can be worn or on display when serving the public in any capacity linked with provincial government responsibility.
The Quebec government of François Legault and his Coalition Avenier Québec are determined to expunge or at least circumscribe religious visibility in the public arena. It is a private, domestic business best kept at a distance, behind closed doors, in the closet, out of sight. And it would appear that they look to France and its 1905 doctrine of laïcité as models. They might look again given the way France’s relationship to its various faith traditions has evolved in the subsequent decades.
Although the premiers of other provinces, the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, and numerous parliamentarians have denounced the legislation as contrary to human rights, political considerations—narrow, partisan, and opportunistic—have muted their moral outrage. And so various civil rights groups, teachers’ associations, legal advocates, private citizens, editorialists, academics and an increasingly large number of cities have opted to go where weaker spirits fear to tread.
Time, I think, for a bold intervention from the Quebec Roman Catholic bishops. I can understand why they might be puck-shy given the ravages or purifications of the Quiet Revolution with its radical displacement of the Catholic memory and sensibility, its disempowering of Catholic institutional life from the 1960s on. Counterintuitive to offer leadership on the side of religion when you have been exiled as irrelevant or marginal in your own province. But then wouldn’t that also be the time to return to the scene with a prophetic alignment with other faiths in a united effort to defang, indeed erase, the infamy?
What does the church have to lose that it has not already lost? But more importantly, think of what it can recover: the moral authority of solidarity and meaningful pastoral witness.