Last week, as my colleague Peter made note of yesterday, McGill University hosted a conference prompted by the upcoming Supreme Court case involving Loyola High School. Listening to a panel that included both Loyola principal Paul Donovan and McGill Professor Daniel Weinstock (who defended the provincial government's position), I found myself amazed at the reduction and reframing of religion which underlies the debate.
In presenting their initial cases, there was a surface amount of overlap between the two arguments. Both speakers (there were others on the panel, too, but I will narrow my summary) agreed that civic literacy required that students have an awareness of the various religions they will encounter in a multicultural society. Both agreed that the aims of the government curriculum in question were those that Loyola's program would cover anyway. They also agreed that there were weaknesses in the specifics of the government program, which Weinstock suggested could be improved upon later. So, clearly, it not what is being taught, but how it's being taught, that's at the nub of this debate.
Weinstock's basic plea came down to the fact that it was reasonable for the state to insist that a course on world religions and ethics be taught from a neutral and objective, rather than a Catholic perspective. After all, this only amounted to two out of forty or so hours of instruction per week. Surely the Catholicity of a school was not threatened by such a negligible imposition on its identity. Donovan responded that this request was absurd and impossible, for Catholicity is something that cannot be laid aside, even for a short period of time. In fact, the very request betrayed a fundamentally different understanding of religion—all religions including Catholicism—which in fact validates the very objection Loyola is making.
Interestingly, Weinstock noted that he disagreed with many of his friends who thought that all public funding and support for religious schools should be eliminated. He acknowledged that neutrality was an impossible concept to apply to education, including secular public education, and that "even-handedness" was a better descriptor for what the state was seeking to achieve. The fact that Loyola would reference what Catholic doctrine might bring to bear on ethical questions was evidence that such desired even-handedness is impossible in an educational context shaped by a religious confession. Weinstock argued that while some schools (perhaps Loyola) might manage to teach this with even-handedness, there are other (presumably less-enlightened religious folk) who will not handle this responsibility properly. Hence the state is justified in asking for "just two hours out of forty" in order to achieve its objectives.
As I listened, I found myself considering how different this discussion was unfolding compared to the many similar discussions that I have listened to over the past few decades in which the application of sexual orientation as a human right has been considered. I cannot imagine any university professor on a public stage suggesting that a gay person should put aside his identity "for just two hours out of forty" and consider that a "negligible" infringement of human rights. Sexual orientation is considered to be part of a person's identity in public discourse today, and the state is asked not only to protect those who seek to affirm it, but also to prosecute any who disagree and for whatever reason do not seek to affirm someone else's sexual identity.
There was a time when religion was rightly understood to be part of a basic human identity, and it was seen as a mark of a society's liberal tolerance that religious confession could be freely expressed without fear of marginalization. Today, it appears that religion has been diminished to something less than that. It may be a right to be exercised (within limits), a choice to be made (but not too publicly or through institutions), or a nostalgic novelty (hopefully outgrown soon). But what has been lost is a basic understanding of what religion is and does, working as it does from the deepest recesses of a human heart and defining one's existence and perspective on life. How do we recover what has been forgotten?