As incredible as it would have seemed only a year ago, federal politics in the autumn of 2013 was dominated by an expense scandal in, of all places, the Senate, reverberating in, of all places, the Prime Minister's Office. It takes some doing to accomplish that, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as the fall turned into winter, was increasingly blaming his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, for bringing Mike Duffy's problems into the PMO. Many people, including senior cabinet ministers Jason Kenney and Peter MacKay, demurred from the trashing of Mr. Wright, known to Convivium as a man who takes seriously the role of faith in our common life and, more particularly, in his own life. As he has already acknowledged, he made a big mistake in writing a personal cheque for Senator Duffy's expenses, but it was gratifying to see senior ministers call a halt to the trashing of his reputation. It all brings to mind the best summary of the whole sorry affair, delivered by commentator David Frum last May at the funeral reception for his father-in-law, Peter Worthington. "Duff stays and Nigel resigns? The worst trade in the history of politics." One could imagine a headline to that effect in the Toronto Sun, the kind that the late Peter Worthington might have composed when he was editing it.
The tabloid press has been having a rather rough go of it lately in Britain. The phone-hacking scandal has done lasting damage to the already thin credibility of the scandal sheets, and now that senior executives in Rupert Murdoch's empire are on trial at the Old Bailey, both their professional and private lives are being revealed as quite scandalous indeed, to say nothing of the criminal charges themselves. In the fine Fleet Street tradition of kicking a man when he is down, Westminster has seized the moment to propose a "royal charter" for the press (i.e., statutory regulation of the press). It's a gross violation of press freedom, of course, but most Britons think Fleet Street has rather forfeited any moral claim to those freedoms. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that an abuse of influence by the press will be remedied by the government seizing greater powers, which it will surely abuse in time. The future is ominous, columnist Peter Osborne of the respectable Daily Telegraph argues: "Their plan to underpin press regulation with legislation is the thin end of a wedge that is hurtling down a very slippery slope across a Rubicon which everyone will in due course regret."1 The charter is bad for press freedom, but it might helpfully ban columnists from stuffing too many metaphors into one sentence.
Typographical errors are near unavoidable in daily newspapers, with thousands of pages flying off the presses on deadline. One would think it less of a problem in the minting of coins, where only a few words are painstakingly set over the course of weeks, if not months. All the more embarrassing then when the Vatican commissioned the Italian mint to make a medallion commemorating the new pontificate of Pope Francis. The new pope chose his motto from a sermon preached by the Venerable Bede on the calling of Saint Matthew: "Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum et quia miserando antque eligendo vidit, ait illi sequere me." In English: "Jesus, therefore, saw the tax collector, and because he saw by having mercy and by choosing, He said to him, ‘Follow me.'" Which is all very fitting, except that the medallion was stamped Lesus rather than Jesus. Latinists will know that there really is not a J in Latin, and names like Jesus and John are rendered Iesus or Ioannes. In any case, whether it should have been an I or J, it clearly could not be L. Rather embarrassed, the Vatican withdrew the medallions, only four of which had been sold—and which now, presumably, will be rather valuable in numismatic circles. It was all the more embarrassing for the mint because Francis, the first Jesuit pope, shares with his fellow Jesuits a devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, which appears on his coat of arms. Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus tells us, but His words will not pass away. True, but He did not guarantee they would be spelled correctly.
We are always proud of local boys who make it big, so when two Kingston high school students were invited to be on The Tonight Show this fall, it was well-noted. Brandon Watts, 16, and Keegan Paulette, 15, both Grade 11 students at Frontenac Secondary School, appeared on a segment of the show called "Prank You Very Much." The duo got on the show after Brandon, pretending to be a masked burglar, surprised Keegan as he came out of the shower. Of course, it was recorded on video and posted online, as is required for all pranks today. The Tonight Show saw it and invited the boys and their parents to Burbank, Calif., for an all-expenses-paid one-week trip. They had a grand time, of course, plus something like 15 seconds of fame. The celebrity treatment included a little away-from-home schooling. California—where else?—has a law that requires minors taken out of school to be on TV have three hours of tutoring per day.2 A nice reversal from the usual order of things in the teenage world, where students may be inclined to neglect their school work to watch TV.
Not so funny on the education front is the Brampton, Ont., man who wants his son to be legally exempted from all religious activities at the local Catholic high school. Oliver Erazo received an exemption for his son, Jonathan, to opt out of religious studies, but he also wants a court order to force the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board to grant a full pass so the Grade 11 student doesn't have to participate in liturgies or religious retreats at Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School. The board initially told him Jonathan could stay home from school during morning liturgies and return upon the program's completion, but Erazo wants his son to be able to work in the school library or office with supervision during such events.3 School board spokesman Bruce Campbell explained that "you can't extricate the faith. It's woven throughout the fabric of the school." Brampton is perhaps the most multicultural city in Canada, with every race, colour and creed in the schools. How is it that only the secularists can't seem to get along with their neighbours?
Convivium held a launch event at Loyola High School in Montreal a while back, and that collaboration has borne good fruit. Loyola is headed to the Supreme Court of Canada next March to argue for its religious liberty. Loyola wants to teach the Quebec government's ethics and religious culture course according to its own Catholic principles. The government insists that can't be done, and the Jesuit high school has to teach about, say, witchcraft as being an equally valid path as, say, the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. It's absurd, but there are a lot of absurd things in Quebec these days. Loyola needs friends, and I am delighted that my colleagues at Cardus have proven to be such, sponsoring a tour in October that took Loyola's principal, Paul Donovan, across the country to let people know about the threats to our religious liberty. That argument has appeared in Convivium already, but it is another step forward when communities of concern and solidarity are built up around these arguments.
The Charter of Secular Fundamentalism, or something like that, has got all the attention in Quebec recently, with the Parti Québécois proposal to ban distinctive religious dress in public sector workplaces. The nakedly prejudicial proposal earned more disfavour than the PQ thought it would, so they tightened the screws and changed its name. Originally called the Charter of Quebec Values, it was officially introduced into the Quebec National Assembly under the title, Charter Affirming the Values of Secularism and the Religious Neutrality of the State, As Well As the Equality of Men and Women, And the Framing of Accommodation Requests. It is beyond parody. It used to be much simpler in the old days: "No Jews Welcome" or "Muslims Need Not Apply."
The village atheist, Richard Dawkins, risked the rapturous reception he usually gets in the academy and media by defending "mild pedophilia." In an interview about his new autobiography, Dawkins said that one of his former school masters "pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts," and that to condemn this "mild touching up" as sexual abuse today would somehow be unfair. "I am very conscious that you can't condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don't look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can't find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today. I don't think he did any of us lasting harm."4 He was criticized, of course, but a celebrated atheist is treated rather more indulgently by the fashionable set. One could only imagine what might happen if a conservative professor, for example, were to make ambiguous remarks on this subject. We don't have to imagine. Dawkins should perhaps offer an understanding ear to Professor Tom Flanagan, who was pilloried last year not for defending pedophilia in any form but merely for making the academic point that some libertarians debate whether child pornography is defensible in certain circumstances.
I was in London, Ont., for Western's homecoming this year as they hosted the Queen's Golden Gaels in football. The Mustangs beat us, but I did enjoy the enthusiastic school spirit found all around the university, even if misdirected! The London police were not so indulgent when they spied the 42-person Western cheerleading squad. Walking to the football game, they stopped to lead a "Go 'Stangs Go" chant in a student neighbourhood near campus. In a vacant parking space on the cul-de-sac, four male cheerleaders hoisted one of the women into the air—a "basket toss"—drawing the attention of a London police officer, who approached the group and wrote a $140 ticket for causing a nuisance.5 I have never before come to the defence of the Western Mustangs, their cheer-leaders, or any of their pomps and vain works, but as between football cheerleaders and overzealous and ill-humoured cops, I'll take the cheerleaders—even from Western. As for causing a nuisance, that more or less describes what police officers do at homecoming.