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Mockery and Majesty

Convivium editor in chief Father Raymond J. de Souza reflects on the new Governor General's recent remarks to the Canadian Science Policy Convention, outlining the connection between faith and science, and the importance of kindness and care for those around us. 

6 minute read
Topics: Public Life, Public Theology, Reflections, Science, Wisdom
Mockery and Majesty November 9, 2017  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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The new Governor General made rather a mess of her speech to the Canadian Science Policy Convention, less than a month into her service as Canadian vice-regal representative of Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of Canada, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

Julie Payette’s mocking of those who don’t believe in climate change, but do believe that God has a role in the origins of human life, has been widely derided, and justly so.

My friend Rex Murphy in the National Post demonstrated that Her Excellency is guilty of both poor manners and soaring arrogance, never a pleasing combination in a public figure.

Over at The Globe and Mail, the impeccably liberal John Ibbitson opined that the Governor General’s “transgression is more serious than some suppose.”

“In presenting herself as an enlightened governor-general, did Ms. Payette inadvertently cast herself as a Liberal governor-general?” Ibbitson asked.

At the Globe, “enlightened” and “Liberal” are rather thought to be the same thing. Still, Ibbitson pointed out that Payette is supposed to be the Governor General “for everyone – believer and non-believer, people of science and people of faith and people of both. She must represent all, regardless of what she might think of some.”

David Koyzis at First Things pointed out that for someone representing the Queen, Payette conducted herself in a way that Queen Elizabeth II never has, and she has been at it for 65 years. Payette did not make it 65 days without a major error.

David Mulroney of the University of Saint Michael’s College was the most devastating. While Her Excellency is quite intelligent and massively credentialed, he implies that she is not broadly educated. Ignorant of history and completely at sea in the philosophy of science, she was holding forth like someone who has never heard of Aristotle.

Their argument is that “scientism” – the only truths we can know are empirically quantifiable ones – is a rather elementary philosophical mistake to make. It’s self-refuting, as the scientific method cannot prove that only science is the path to truth. In any case, anyone who has read a good novel, or attended a play, or been to an art gallery knows that science is not the only path to knowledge. The Governor General hands out a lot of prizes for the arts, so sooner rather than later Payette will meet people who can explain that scientistic scientists are rather narrow-minded people.

I would add though three points about the Governor General’s scientism speech, about history, philosophy and character.

I have no idea of that they teach at astronaut school, and it would be most understandable if, in their urgency to convey how not to blow up the space station, they skimp a bit on the history of astronomy. Yet is it really possible that the Governor General does not know that perhaps the greatest scientist of the Middle Ages was St. Albert the Great, friar in the Dominican order and teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas?

Did she never learn that Nicolas Copernicus, father of the heliocentric revolution, was a Church canon whose work proceeded under the patronage of his bishop uncle? Or that 16th and 17th-century astronomy was advanced more than most by Jesuit priests?

Did she never read about Georges Lemaître, the Belgian priest who developed the Big Bang theory, and saw no incompatibility between it and the Biblical teaching of Genesis? Not only can religious people be good scientists, history shows that, until very recently, the best scientists were often deeply religious.

Perhaps it is better that the Governor General boasts a vast ignorance of the history of astronomy, because at least that provides a reason for her deeper philosophical muddle. It is not an accident that so many scientific advances were made by deeply committed Christians.

Scientific inquiry requires that the natural world can be studied, that it is not divine in and of itself. A natural world that is rife with divinities – gods of the earth, wind and fire, of the flood, of the celestial orbs – cannot be the object of penetrating study. It remains a realm of worship and sacrifice. Monotheistic faith in God who is apart from the natural world makes it possible for science to commence.

Moreover, science takes as its premise that there is an intelligible order in things. It is possible to, on a chance, become a scientist hoping that the “random processes” of which the Governor General spoke have produced an intelligible order, but it is more likely that people who believe in a designing intelligence would think it worthwhile to study the nature of that design. Someone who believed in true randomness all the way down would properly think it quite irrational to do science.

The Governor General can be excused, I suppose, for not knowing what she is talking about. She has access to officials aplenty who could put in her touch with genuinely learned people. But the question of character is more troubling. Why the mocking disdain for those of whom she spoke?

I don’t know Julie Payette. I have never met her and, before she was appointed to her vice-regal post, had read next to nothing about her. Perhaps she is a kind and caring person. Yet Canadians are right to worry that we have a new Governor General who is not. Do we really want an official representative of our head of state who thinks it cool to mock those not present in order to get a few mean-spirited yuks?

(As an aside, it was also foolish for the Governor General to clearly imply that she regards, her political gestures to the contrary, aboriginal spirituality – which lies far outside the tradition of natural philosophy from which science comes – as mostly delusional. It’s an important point, to which I will return in future weeks. )

Julie Payette’s recent predecessors in office have themselves been people of faith. Georges Vanier, who died 50 years ago during Canada’s centennial year, and was the last truly consequential GG, took as his motto Fiat Voluntas Dei (May God’s Will Be Done) and built a chapel in Rideau Hall so that he could attend Mass daily. Adrienne Clarkson took her motto from a prayer often said by Anglican clergy before preaching. Our recently retired GG, David Johnston, spoke often of his Anglican faith, and had been trained to be a lay reader who could occasionally lead services.

Johnston’s faith bears closer examination, which he laid out in his book The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation. In his letter to our Cardus colleague Dr. Andrew Bennett when he was ambassador for religious freedom, Johnston writes that “church is a way to connect with friends and neighbours to get a sense of the views of others and to be reminded of the primary power of love.”

Johnston is pious, but thinks that “highly rational arguments” are somehow beyond the scope of religious faith. I will leave it to Dr. Bennett to explain the role of reason in the work of theology from Augustine to Benedict XVI.

“Our faiths should be sources of love, service, and tolerance,” wrote Johnston. “They should be our guides and not absolute truths. They should be living faiths that spring from who we aspire to be – smart and, above all, caring people.”

Building a “smart and caring” society was a dominant theme of Johnston’s vice-regal service. Alas, his successor’s inaugural turn at the science convention was neither. Let’s hope that as she moves through her second month in office, she might perhaps read up on the subjects she chooses to address, and take a bit more care to speak decently about all those whom the Queen pledged her life to serve long before the Governor General was born.

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