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Loyola vs. Quebec: the new reality of confessional secularism

(Photo: loyola.ca)

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Quebec’s Minister of Education infringed upon the religious freedom of Loyola, a private Catholic high school in Montreal, by requiring the school to teach all aspects of the province’s Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERC) from a neutral perspective, i.e. from a non-confessional, or specifically non-Catholic perspective.

This decision has sparked an animated conversation across Canada about religious freedom and the role of government, or as it’s traditionally known, the question of the separation of church and state.  One of my colleagues recently wrote on the proper role of the state in matters of religion and morals.  Here I offer the following reflection on another essential consideration, namely, the growing phenomenon of what we might call “confessional secularism,” that is, the transformation of a purely neutral secularism into a belief system; a faith.

A simple timeline of the six-year legal battle between Loyola and the Minister can be found at the end of this column.  For more background information visit Loyola’s website or read the Supreme Court’s decision.

Reading between the lines
From the outset, it is important to note that the dispute was not over the content or goals of the ERC Program.  Loyola does not object to the “recognition of others,” “pursuing the common good,” or promoting “openness to human rights, diversity and respect for others,” as outlined in the course.  On the contrary, these objectives are central to the mission of the school.  And historically speaking, the Catholic Church itself is responsible, in part, for embedding into modern society the fundamental principles of rights, equality, liberty and justice from which these goals originate.

The problem is the Minister’s insistence on the strict implementation of the ERC Program from a “neutral” perspective.  According to the Supreme Court, the Minister’s insistence suggests that, “engagement with an individual’s own religion on his or her own terms can be presumed to impair respect for others.”  In other words, the Minister made an irrational assessment of the Catholic perspective: that from a Catholic perspective it is impossible to teach children to respect others and promote dialogue and the common good, as articulated in the ERC course. (According to the Minister the perspective must be neutral, i.e. secular.)

The Court perceptively refuted this assessment of the Minister. In perhaps the most penetrating statement in the majority decision, the Court went beyond simply arguing that the Minister had violated the school’s religious freedom.  It also stated that preventing Loyola from teaching Catholicism from a Catholic perspective “does little to further the ERC Program’s objectives.”  This observation of the Court can form the basis of our consideration of “confessional secularism”.

Calling a spade a spade
As I understand it, confessional secularism is the result of transforming the fundamental tenets of secularism into a belief system.  It is one thing to promote a secular state that is neutral in matters of religion; it is quite another to promote a secular state that adopts secularism as a religion.  Confessional secularism is like any other religion insofar as a certain belief system is held to be true above other belief systems.

If we keep this in mind and follow the line of thought of the Supreme Court, we find the Minister’s insistence that Loyola teach Catholicism from a neutral perspective to be counterintuitive. We would expect to see the Minister uphold at all costs the integrity of the ERC Program.  Instead, we see the Minister insist on a strictly secular approach to religion and ethics that limits the religious freedom of a Catholic institution and thus undermines the very goals of the ERC Program, which were designed to celebrate openness and diversity.  How can this be?

I remember reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy for the first time, and being struck by a similar phenomenon. In the book, Chesterton reflects on the prevailing anti-Christian attitudes of the early 1900’s in Europe. Like many of his contemporaries he was open to new and progressive ideas, and traditional Christianity was largely seen by the intelligentsia as primitive and authoritarian.  The young and agnostic Chesterton celebrated these various critiques of Christianity, but then became alarmed by the inconsistencies he found in them.  At one point he wrote:

“It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with. What again could this astonishing thing [Christianity] be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?”

We might pose a similar question to Quebec’s Minister of Education: What is it about the Catholic perspective on issues of religion and ethics that the government is so anxious to contradict, that in doing so it does not mind contradicting its own goals for the ERC Program?

I do not have a definitive answer to this question.  Nor is it the competency of the Court to try to answer it.  However, the Court did conclude that, “A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”

We must acknowledge the reality of confessional secularism in our society today.  Forceful expressions of it seem to spring more frequently out of Quebec, but it is not a stagnant phenomenon and certainly not isolated in Quebec.  The subtle leap from a purely neutral secularism to confessional secularism is one that more and more Canadians are making.  It is indeed a leap of faith.

The difficulty with confessional secularism is not that secularism has become a new religion, but that its proponents sometimes fail to recognize it as such.  The Loyola case proved this definitively.  If confessional secularists are willing to recognize their belief system as a belief system, then Canadians should do as they have always done: welcome with open arms another group into our pluralist society.  But if proponents of this new religion advocate a kind of official atheism in the name of neutral secularism, then Loyola vs. Quebec won’t be the last case of religious freedom before the Supreme Court.

Timeline of events

  • Quebec’s Ministry of Education, Sport and Leisure introduces its Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERC)
  • Loyola applies for an exemption from the course, asking the Minister to allow the school to teach the content and goals of the program from a Catholic perspective
  • The Minister refuses an exemption to Loyola


  • Loyola takes the matter to the Quebec Superior Court


  • The Quebec Superior Court concludes that the decision to refuse Loyola’s request was invalid because it assumed the content and goals of the program could not be taught from a confessional (Catholic) perspective
  • The Minister appeals the Court’s decision


  • The Quebec Court of Appeal overturns the Superior Court’s ruling


  • Loyola takes the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada


  • The Supreme Court of Canada overturns the Court of Appeal and rules that the Minister infringed upon the religious freedom of Loyola

Freedom from Religion – The Canadian Edition


Freedom of religion, it is something that generally speaking, Canadians take for granted. You can wake-up on Sunday mornings, and drive/walk/ride to the local parish. The music plays, the congregation prays, the priest offers the sacrifice of the mass. For most, the conversation ends right there, freedom of religion delivered, your social contract with the state lives to see another day. However there is so much more to it than that. Faith is so much more than being able to assemble. Challenges to those rights are not always as overt as the violence and discrimination faced by our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.

Cue up 2008, Montreal, Quebec: a private Catholic Boys’ High School called Loyola, takes issue with the new provincially mandated Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program. In the wake of doing away with religious schools, the government created a secular ethics program, which seeks to give students a “balanced” look at different faiths. Loyola being a private institution, applied to the Ministry of Education for an exemption. While not objecting to the bulk of the program, the school felt that it could not and should not have to teach Catholicism from a “neutral” or “unbiased” point of view. Administrators argued that it would be impossible and simply not right for teachers to have to leave their faith at the door for a period of each day.

With the government not willing to back down and Loyola not willing to compromise their beliefs, the battle went the way of the courts resulting in a ruling in Loyola’s favor. The government appealed and won, setting up a highly touted main event in the Supreme Court. Ultimately it was Loyola’s day, as just last week, the highest court in the land ruled that the provincial government had indeed infringed on the religious freedoms of the school.

There is no shortage of important points to be unpacked from this case, but the one that stands at the forefront, is the overarching reach of the state. The Government of Quebec has argued that it must equip young people for the future, for the secular society of which they are supposed to be productive members. They also believe that they have a vehicle in the form of the ERC to do so and that it belongs in Catholic private schools. However at what point did the state assume the powers of parents, families and Churches? It is not the job of state to teach people how to be moral. Certainly the state must legislate and enforce laws, however morality has rarely been the forte of governments throughout history.

The state cannot and should not have to try to protect people from themselves. This move, which follows the abolition of religious schools in the province, is at the very least, the tacit admission that faith plays an important role in forming people’s moral compass. However it isn’t the government’s job to mould society or its people. All of that comes organically through formation delivered by families, as well as the Churches and communities they are a part of. The government’s role in all of this is to preserve freedom. That freedom gives parents the chance to foster children in what they believe to be an appropriate environment, allowing them flourish and become their own person.

Yet in the case of Loyola, we have seen the opposite transpire. The government has de facto abdicated its responsibility as the guarantor of such an environment and in fact become the culprit. How sad, that this pivot comes as we make such incredible advances in the sciences and the arts. With all of this great knowledge there are those who argue that they must protect people from themselves, from what their faith may teach them. All of this to ensure, that people grow up to be productive members of an increasingly self-secularized society.

Canadians can be grateful that the justice system has fulfilled its mandate and upheld the laws of the land. However it is unlikely to inhibit such attempts curtailing the religious freedoms people of faith hold so fundamentally close to their hearts. If this case has taught Catholics anything, it is that they must be thankful for and respectful of the rights and freedoms of all. These come from God, the creator, whose authority and age, outstrips and predates any piece of legislation conceived. These freedoms are great and powerful and as with any great powers, come great responsibilities. Faith must be used to build a better world, to create a more just society and ultimately inform and inspire people to lives of virtue.

Pope: Catholics have ‘duty’ to pray for China today

While Pope Benedict frequently invites Catholics to pray for particular causes, he has made a unique, official appeal for the Church in China. Speaking at the General Audience last Wednesday, he said that “all Catholics throughout the world have a duty to pray for the Church in China: those members of the faithful have a right to our prayers, they need our prayers.”

In 2007, the Pope inaugurated the World Day of Prayer for the Church in China. Celebrated today, May 24th, it coincides with the memorial to Our Lady, Help of Christians. Pilgrims travel from throughout China to venerate her in Shanghai at the Shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan.

Developments in China add urgency to the prayer request. AsiaNews reports that the Chinese government has restricted access to the shrine and that underground priests have been taken away by security forces.


Virgin Most Holy, Mother of the Incarnate Word and our Mother,
venerated in the Shrine of Sheshan under the title “Help of Christians”,
the entire Church in China looks to you with devout affection.
We come before you today to implore your protection.
Look upon the People of God and, with a mother’s care, guide them
along the paths of truth and love, so that they may always be
a leaven of harmonious coexistence among all citizens.

When you obediently said “yes” in the house of Nazareth,
you allowed God’s eternal Son to take flesh in your virginal womb
and thus to begin in history the work of our redemption.
You willingly and generously cooperated in that work,
allowing the sword of pain to pierce your soul,
until the supreme hour of the Cross, when you kept watch on Calvary,
standing beside your Son, who died that we might live.

From that moment, you became, in a new way,
the Mother of all those who receive your Son Jesus in faith
and choose to follow in his footsteps by taking up his Cross.
Mother of hope, in the darkness of Holy Saturday you journeyed
with unfailing trust towards the dawn of Easter.
Grant that your children may discern at all times,
even those that are darkest, the signs of God’s loving presence.

Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China,
who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love.
May they never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world,
and of the world to Jesus.
In the statue overlooking the Shrine you lift your Son on high,
offering him to the world with open arms in a gesture of love.
Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love,
ever clinging to the rock of Peter on which the Church is built.
Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and for ever. Amen!

Afghan government frees Christian convert

For Said Musa, being publicly exposed as a Christian condemned him to death row. Yet his testimony of faith, spread throughout the world, may have also helped secure his liberation.

As we reported on the S+L Blog and Perspectives, Musa worked for the Red Cross in Afghanistan when, due to a local television report, he was outed as a Christian convert. He was consequently convicted for apostasy, which carries the death penalty. As reports circulated that Musa’s execution was imminent, Archbishop Brendan O’Brien (writing on behalf of the Canadian bishops’ Human Rights Committee) urged Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to intervene. A spokesperson declared that Canada had raised its concern about Musa’s case with the Afghan government. The statement reiterated Canada’s insistence that Afghanistan uphold religious freedom.

Now an organization working on Musa’s behalf reports that he has been released. The International Christian Concern credits “aggressive international diplomacy” that included prison visits by representatives of the Italian and American embassies.

“It has been encouraging to see the international community, including churches, reporters and government officials in Europe and North America, work together for the common goal of freeing Said,” says Aidan Clay, an ICC representative.

Citing a letter from Musa written before his release, Clay says that Musa declined an earlier offer to be freed on the condition that he renounce his faith. The ICC’s source claims that he is now safely out of the country.

The New York Times confirmed Musa’s release with the director of the prison where he was held. A senior prosecutor involved with the case told the NYT that, ultimately, Musa told the high court that he regretted converting to Christianity and wished to return to Islam. Whether or not Musa actually made such an admission, the appearance of one might appease those within the government who demanded his execution. The courts could have justified his release because, as CNN reports, apostasy is not a criminal act in the Afghan constitution. In such cases, the judge then turns to sharia law, where he has “an open hand” in determining the verdict.

Musa’s wife, who fled to Pakistan with their children, says that she has yet to hear from her husband. She speculates that he may have taken refuge in a foreign embassy.

Christianity Today is asking why Musa’s case was able to generate media attention, while other similar cases have not. One of the reasons listed was Musa’s heroic testimony of faith. His emotional appeal, handwritten from prison in imperfect English, may have elicited just enough of an international outcry to prompt his release.