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Conscience Versus the Spirit of the AgeConscience Versus the Spirit of the Age

Conscience Versus the Spirit of the Age

In this text of his address to the annual Red Mass dinner hosted by the Thomas More Lawyers' Guild of Toronto in October 2014, federal Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney calls on assembled lawyers to defend conscience rights as a bulwark against the spirit of the age running roughshod over us

Jason Kenney
14 minute read

It is a great honour to be invited to speak from this distinguished podium, which has been graced by people far more worthy than I, to invoke the life, legacy and lessons of our patron saint, Sir Thomas More.

I say "our" patron although I am not a member of your honourable legal fraternities at the bar and the bench. I labour in a much less august vineyard, that of the political vocation. But in the Jubilee Year of 2000, Saint John Paul II decided to add to Saint Thomas More's already heavy burden as the patron saint of lawyers by also giving him the impossibly difficult task of acting as the patron saint of politicians.

Earlier this evening, we heard the Gospel reading, "Woe to you, lawyers!" Lest you feel put out, please remember that the most prominent politicians in the gospels are King Herod, Pontius Pilate and Caesar, so the politicians fare much worse!

Poor Saint Thomas, shining light of the Renaissance, the greatest jurist and statesman of his era, martyred for this faith—and his eternal reward is now to keep watch over politicians and lawyers. I suspect that he envies Saint Jude, who is charged only with hopeless causes.

Ladies and gentlemen, as Canadians we are looking ahead to July 1, 2017, aware that the sesquicentennial of our great dominion is significant not only for Canadians but, in a certain way, for the world too. For us it will be an occasion to celebrate our own history. For the world, Canada 150 will be a hopeful confirmation that responsible government, representative democracy, widespread religious, political and economic liberty, unprecedented material prosperity, unity in diversity, linguistic harmony, that all of this, which we modestly call peace, order and good government, can endure generation after generation.

It will be an occasion to recall the tradition of ordered liberty through parliamentary government that began 800 years ago with the Great Charter, and which has made Canada one of the most blessed places on earth.

July 1 is also an anniversary of relevance to the Thomas More Lawyers' Guild. It was on that day in 1535 that Thomas was condemned to death at the Palace of Westminster for his refusal to recognize King Henry VIII as Head of the Church in England. He would be beheaded days later, on July 6. It was a day of great sadness for our Mother Parliament, a jarring departure from that tradition of ordered liberty.

The lessons of July 1, 1535, are relevant to the project that the Fathers of Confederation began here on July 1, 1867. Representative democracy, our heritage of liberty and the rule of law—all this depends upon a correct understanding of the proper spheres of authority and the limited competencies of state authority.

Saint Thomas More suffered martyrdom because he insisted that there was a limit to the King's lawful authority, namely that he had to respect the freedom of the Church, guaranteed by the very nature of the State and the nature of the Church. These ancient principles were recognized in the first article of the Magna Carta, which guaranteed the Church's freedom. When Henry VIII's Parliament voted him Head of the Church, it exceeded its competence. It was a law, but not lawful, for it violated justice. It did not give to the Church its due, and granted to the King what was not his due.

A State cannot endure in "all peaceable freedom and tranquility" if it does not recognize the due limits to its power. We have seen repeatedly in our own time that states that claim unlimited power over all spheres of common life by that very fact limit, sometimes in brutal ways, the liberty, prosperity and peace enjoyed by their citizens.

In our present Canadian order, these limits are reflected by the requirement that the State act only in accordance with the Constitution, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which begins by stating that Canada's foundation—July 1, 1867— recognizes "the supremacy of God and the rule of law"—the very issues that were contested at Westminster on July 1, 1535.

This evening I wish to share with you, distinguished members of the bar gathered under the patronage of Saint Thomas More, some thoughts about the importance of conscience in the life of legislators like myself and those who, like yourselves, are charged with the administration and adjudication of those laws. I seek to do so because history in general— and the history of Thomas More in particular —teaches us that the recognition of the rights of conscience is an essential limitation of State power. Put another way, where the rights of conscience are violated, the prospect of a State that unjustly limits liberty becomes all too real throughout history.

Saint Thomas More is remembered and celebrated by history precisely because he refused to do what his conscience judged to be morally wrong—swear an oath to the supremacy of the King over the Church. As another great and saintly Englishman, Blessed John Henry Newman explained, conscience bears witness to the truth. For that reason, he called it the "aboriginal vicar of Christ." Conscience is not only a distillation of subjective opinions. We don't praise Thomas More because he did not compromise on his whims. His friends and family in fact tried to persuade him that he was being stubborn, which is a matter of unreasonably holding fast to one's own opinion.

We praise Thomas More because his conscience made a reasoned and accurate judgment of the truth of the matter, namely that the King was claiming for himself as Caesar what could only be rendered unto God. Newman reminded us that conscience has rights because it has duties, and its primary duty is to discover—not to invent—the truth about moral action, whether alone or in our common life.

Conscience makes use of all the resources available to our judgment. It begins obviously with our observations of the world around us and our natural reason. For Christians, it is further formed by Biblical revelation and lived tradition.

One does not need to be a Christian or a person of faith to recognize that trampling on the rights of conscience can open a path to the abuse of power. We Canadians have been blessed to have been spared those consequences because our tradition of the limited State recognizes that the rights of conscience must be respected. Indeed, the first liberty listed in our Charter is found in section 2(a), freedom of conscience and religion, which is an echo of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…"

I propose to you that there is always lurking about a certain spirit of the age that resents the challenge that is posed by the rights of conscience. The spirit of the age often rebels against one or another timeless truth. In the time of King Henry VIII, it was the spirit of absolute monarchy, fuelled by a certain ambitious nationalism and the zeal of the Reformation. That spirit was powerful enough to disrupt centuries-old patterns of religious, social and cultural life in England in which the Crown respected the sovereign spheres of civil society, what Edmund Burke called the "little platoons." But faced by the modern spirit of Henry, the entire establishment of England—including religious, political and commercial leaders—accommodated themselves to the King's usurpation of their ancient liberties.

The spirit of the age can be a powerful juggernaut that is wont to run roughshod over the consciences of those who would resist it. We remember Thomas More because he was strong enough to stand against the spirit of the age. No neck is strong enough to resist the executioner's axe, but a few courageous souls are strong enough to resist the demands of the one who commands the executioner. A healthy political culture—the kind with which we have been blessed since Canada's founding—seeks to prevent a conflict between the rights and duties of conscience, and the demands of the sovereign and the sovereign's government.

I began with noting some anniversaries. We meet this evening on October 16, the 36th anniversary of the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II. This year we also mark the 25th anniversary of the peaceful defeat of communism in central and eastern Europe, the rolling back of the Soviet empire, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact—all of which was dramatically manifest in the breaching of the Berlin Wall. What happened in November 1989 at Checkpoint Charlie was a consequence, in part, of what happened in the Sistine Chapel on October 16 eleven years earlier. Saint John Paul II would not claim credit for his role, but he did comment on what took place in 1989 in a manner that is relevant to our topic:

"In the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the principle that force predominates over reason was carried to the extreme. Man was compelled to submit to a conception of reality imposed on him by coercion, and not reached by virtue of his own reason and the exercise of his own freedom. This principle must be overturned and total recognition must be given to the rights of the human conscience, which is bound only to the truth, both natural and revealed."
Centesimus Annus

The spirit of the age was once absolute monarchy. In the 20th century, when ancient monarchies fell after the Great War, a new totalitarian spirit of the age emerged. Saint John Paul continues:

"The recognition of these rights [of conscience] represents the primary foundation of every authentically free political order. It is important to reaffirm this latter principle… because in the developed countries there is sometimes an excessive promotion of purely utilitarian values… making it difficult to recognize and respect the hierarchy of the true values of human existence…"

John Paul, who suffered the occupation of his country by both the Nazi regime and the Red Army, knew well that the State, no matter how configured, must be limited by the truth about the human person and society. For him, these truths are not a matter of ephemeral opinion but are discovered by natural reason—what we might call political philosophy—and revealed truths, which are no less true because some arrive at them by faith. The determined, creative, peaceful witness that overthrew communism 25 years ago was informed by both, and was symbolized powerfully by two great heroes of the period, Lech Walesa, who literally wore his Catholic faith on his sleeve in the image of the Black Madonna of Jasna Góra, and Václav Havel, a non-believer who taught us that the power of the powerless lay precisely in their witness to the truth, in their insistence on the rights of conscience.

In his analysis of 1989, Saint John Paul warned that there exist spirits of our age that are opposed to the rights of conscience. I would point out two that I have encountered in my service in public life.

I was first elected to Parliament in 1997 as a member of the Reform Party. At that time, one spirit of the age was an aggressive democratic populism that insisted that MPs should vote against their conscience, even on questions pertaining to human dignity, if popular opinion in their ridings ran against it. Defenders of the rights of conscience had to argue against this populist intolerance for conscientious principle. For example, as a Reform candidate, I made clear that I would vote in accordance with my conscience in the defence of human dignity in opposing capital punishment, regardless of the results of a given opinion poll on a given day.

Seventeen years later, that populist spirit of the age is less influential, but there is another spirit of the age challenging even more directly the rights of conscience. To take an example from my home province of Alberta, in the last provincial election, the then-premier said that she found the very idea of conscience rights "frightening."

Just consider that for a moment. A Canadian premier said she found the very idea of conscience rights—rights enshrined in the Charter, rights written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rights broadly regarded as foundational to liberal democracy—to be "frightening."

More recently, you will have noted that both the leaders of the opposition and of the third party in Ottawa have said that on any matter pertaining to the unborn—even a matter as innocuous as a nonbinding motion expressing concern about the practice of sex-selection abortion—their MPs would not even be permitted to vote in accordance with their own consciences.

I do not raise this point in a spirit of partisanship, but because of its broader implications, and not just political but social implications. Indeed, Mr. Trudeau's determination to supress the conscientious convictions of his colleagues on matters of such profound meaning is a radical departure from the best traditions of his own party, to which I myself belonged as a young man. As the great former Liberal Minister Clifford Lincoln—famous for his refusal to bend to the abrogation of linguistic rights in Quebec—wrote in response to Mr Trudeau's innovative approach:

"If our major political parties truly want to represent our open society, surely they owe it to us to be open-minded themselves and not become closed forums of uniform thought and positions on matters of conscience."

Your own esteemed Archbishop, Thomas Cardinal Collins, pointed out in a public letter in response that faithful Catholics—and he specifically included Pope Francis—would not be eligible to stand for office as candidates for the Liberal Party under this new intolerant policy, which violates the principle of pluralism. But these calls to respect pluralism and conscience had little effect on the policy. Indeed, more recently, Mr. Trudeau insisted that on life matters, neither the rights of conscience nor freedom of expression apply. It is a new spirit of the age.

Friends, it is no secret that I am a pro-life member of Parliament, by which I mean that I believe in the inviolable dignity of the human person, the sanctity of human life, and that a compassionate society should seek to welcome the vulnerable with generosity. For the entirety of my service in Parliament, however, the policy imposed on Canada by the 1988 Morgentaler decision has been confirmed by the repeated decisions of Parliament not to modify the ruling and subsequent jurisprudence. I am a minister of a government and member of a party that have a clear policy of not introducing any government legislation on this matter. As an MP and a minister of the Crown, I must accept that the democratic process often resolves matters contrary to my own preferences and convictions. In democratic politics, no one ever wins all the time.

But I cannot accept that, for myself or for others with diverse and well-reasoned positions, certain convictions about human dignity or public justice are to be completely excluded from democratic discourse. It is one thing to enter the debate and lose; it is another not to be permitted to enter the debate at all. The price of being faithful to one's conscience should not be exclusion from the public life of one's country. We cannot be intolerant of reasoned, conscientious convictions in the name of tolerance. Liberal democratic institutions— such as political parties—cannot engage in the illiberal suppression of ideas. A pluralistic society cannot adopt a monistic approach to profoundly important questions about justice and the human person.

Again, this is not a partisan point. The reality is that threats to the rights of conscience arise in different political systems, in different political parties, in different political eras. My point is not that there are shortcomings in any particular party. The spirit of the age blows where it wills. My point is not even to call attention to the specific situation of Catholics in public life. My desire, rather, is to encourage you, stewards of the law, to do your part to defend the rights of conscience of all, in all environments, as the foundation of the liberal democracy that is our blessed inheritance as Canadians.

Here allow me to make another point. Robustly defending the rights of conscience is not something that is good for legislators alone; much less is it special pleading for people of faith in the public square. It is something that is essential for the health of the entire political system. This point was made with cogency by Pope Benedict XVI in two historic parliamentary visits.

In 2010, Benedict visited the Mother of Parliaments, addressing the great and the good of British society in Westminster Hall only a few metres from where Sir Thomas More was condemned for his fidelity to Benedict's predecessors. It was a historic moment, and Benedict spoke of the rights enumerated in section 2(a) of our Charter, the rights of conscience and religion:

"Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. ... These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square."

I am quoting John Paul and Benedict in the Catholic context of your Guild, but the point is not exclusively Catholic. Benedict himself referred to William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist legislator, who took the lead in outlawing slavery, motivated precisely by his religious faith. We could likewise point to other great liberation movements, including the American Civil Rights Movement, which brought the liberating power of conscience to public life. Indeed, perhaps the most powerful Christian articulation of the rights of conscience and the duties of justice in our time is the 1963 Letter from Birmingham City Jail by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Pope Benedict made another parliamentary visit the year after Westminster, this time to the federal parliament in his native Germany. Addressing the Bundestag in Berlin, Benedict quoted Augustine of Hippo, who noted in the ancient world that if there is no acknowledged truth to guide the pursuit of justice, which is the goal of politics, then the State can degenerate into a lethal assertion of power. Augustine put it bluntly: "Without justice—what else is the State but a great band of robbers?"

For Benedict to quote those words in the federal parliament of Germany, with its troubled history, further amplified the impact. Yet the impact of Augustine's question needs to be felt in every society. The truth that guides the pursuit of justice— of peace, order and good government—needs the witness of conscience. The witness of conscience, including the consciences of people of faith, therefore offers a valuable contribution to the common good of society, and has certainly made a positive contribution to the development of Canada these past 150 years.

Let us end where we began, with Saint John Paul's extension of Saint Thomas More's patronage to legislators and statesmen on November 5, 2000. On that occasion he said:

"Thomas More's life is truly an example for all who are called to serve humanity and society in the civic and political sphere. The eloquent testimony which he bore is as timely as ever at an historical moment which presents crucial challenges to the consciences of everyone involved in the field of governance. As a statesman, he always placed himself at the service of the person, especially the weak and the poor. Honour and wealth held no sway over him, guided as he was by an outstanding sense of fairness. Above all, he never compromised his conscience, even to the point of making the supreme sacrifice so as not to disregard its voice. Invoke him, follow him, imitate him! His intercession will not fail— even in the most difficult of situations—to bring you strength, goodnaturedness, patience and perseverance."
Homily of John Paul II, Jubilee of Government Leaders, Members of Parliament and Politicians, November 5, 2000

May that wish, that benediction, of Saint John Paul II be upon us this evening.

And, as we sing in our national anthem, may God keep our land glorious and free!

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