Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
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The Conversation

Principal Paul Donovan explains why Loyola High School in Montreal is going to the Supreme Court

Paul Donovan
16 minute read

Convivium: What is the issue that's going to have Loyola High School in front of the Supreme Court on March 24, 2014?

Paul Donovan: It would be a good idea to go back to the beginning, when the Quebec government instituted a course called Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) for all schools in the province. At first, we weren't sure that they would force confessional schools to teach it. We thought there might be some exemptions for confessional schools, but it became clear in early 2008 that that wasn't the case, that we would have to teach it.

We wrote a letter to the minister of education asking if we could substitute our course for the one they were mandating for all schools. The premise behind it was that the course states there are two main goals: the pursuit of the common good and the recognition of others. We felt what we were doing [at Loyola] could accomplish those goals. In fact, we knew we could accomplish those goals because we'd been doing that for many years.

We made the request in writing but didn't get any response from the ministry for a long time. At that point, we were already discussing what we would do if we were refused. What it came down to is that we were sure we could do our own thing unofficially — teach it our way, say nothing and move on. But in our discussions, we felt that that wasn't really an option for us. We try to teach our kids — it's one of the main ideas of what this school is about — that when there are things that are wrong, when there is injustice in society, you have to stand up and say something.

We would do everything we could to negotiate with the government and talk to them about it, but if in the end there was a refusal, then we would have to challenge it as far as we could. The government ended up sending us a letter. The government ended up sending us a letter. There were actually two, and the second gave six reasons why we couldn't teach our version of the ERC. Five of the six reasons were because they believe that we cannot accomplish the course goals if we are teaching it from a confessional perspective.

They said that you couldn't teach the recognition of others and the pursuit of the common good as a Catholic. You have to remove any religious dimension, and only then can you teach those goals properly. That's the main problem for us. It's a ridiculous idea that confessional groups, Catholics in particular, are unable to teach those things. It's a fundamental misunderstanding of what religions are and the good that religions contribute to society.

When we went to court, along with the government's position that we are unable to teach the ERC from a confessional perspective, they also claimed we couldn't challenge their decision on the basis of religious freedom because they said that as an institution, we don't have religious freedom — that belongs only to individuals. That wasn't on our radar when we started, but because that was the approach the Attorney General decided to take, it became a major issue — being able to defend religious institutions of all types, whether schools or charitable organizations or the Church itself.

C: Just to back up a little bit, you mentioned confessional schools, but in fact there are no public confessional schools in Quebec anymore. Ultimately, where this comes from is the abolition of confessional schools. In that sense, Loyola and schools like it are now outliers, where they used to be the dominant form of schooling in the province, right?

PD: Yes. There is no such thing, technically, as a confessional school in Quebec. What's allowed is an exemption, or educational project, that designates you as a religiously based school. In that sense, we still are a confessional school but the designation has changed. But there are no more Catholic schools in the public system. In fact, for English-speaking boys, we're it in the province.

C: It's one of the anomalies, isn't it? If Loyola were a sports school, an art school, a dance school, if this were an ancient history school, you could apply for an exemption and the education minister would say 'Since you're a sports school, if you don't want your hockey players taking six hours of phys ed a week when they're on the ice at 5 o'clock every morning, fair enough, go ahead.' Yet, you were not given that discretion. Do you know why? Were you singled out because Loyola's a Catholic school?

PD: I hope not. The article of law that we were applying under is something that's used fairly regularly in schools, as you were mentioning. For example, if the ministry did come up with a new phys-ed program and we were a sports school, we could apply and say 'well, we'll teach the equivalent in what we do as a sports school' and that would normally be allowed.

It's used in other areas, too. Say you decide that you want to do two years of social studies in one year so you can do your own project — you would apply for an exemption from the normal regulations and the government would allow it.

It allows the minister to be the one who determines whether or not the course you're offering is deemed equivalent. The crux of this whole thing is that the criterion the minister used was confessionality, and by default being a confessional school means you cannot obtain the goals of the ERC program.

I actually think that they're probably less worried about whether Catholics could do it than they are about what it would mean if they say yes to Catholics in terms of other applications that may come afterward.

C: So you got caught in what seems to be a wider net for different targets?

PD: Yes, which we were aware of when we decided to challenge.

C: When you decided to challenge the minister's decision, was it an easy decision for the school to make? Was it something there was unanimous consent around?

PD: That's not an easy question. In the end, there was strong support for the decision. I think there was definitely some discussion about whether or not this was the most practical course of action; and I would actually agree that it's not the most practical. It is the right course, and I think that's what people understood. Once they did, there was no problem — from any constituent, from the parents, from the alumni, from the board.

C: What were some of the fears? And did you expect that it was going to take six years to conclude?

PD: No. Once we began, though, I learned quickly how long the legal process actually takes. Even the initial Superior Court judge indicated this was going to go to the Supreme Court. He was fairly sure of that. It's been a much longer road than I thought it would be when we first embarked on it.

C: Just to put it in context, the Loyola High School student who was centre of the case, the complainant so to speak, is now attending Concordia University and will be finishing his first year when the Supreme Court hears the appeal on March 24. Was the main concern that this would just take up a lot of the school's time, a lot of its resources, to fight such a protracted battle?

PD: That was one fear. I think the other would be that we have to work with the Ministry of Education just by the fact that we're a school. There's always going to be hesitation when you're going to end up in a legal conflict with someone you have to work with and who, in the end, has some authority over you. I have to say that the ministry, in terms of that, has dealt with us very well. There hasn't been any feeling of repercussion or anything like that from the ministry.

C: Just to be clear, until the case is concluded, you are not teaching the ERC program. You've continued to teach the Loyola version of it.

PD: Yes, because when you get right down to it, what we're arguing is that for us to be a Catholic school, we cannot do it in a way that means setting aside what our faith is. That's a matter of conscience. I couldn't tell my teachers 'well we'll do it until we hear that we're allowed to change it.'

C: When you got the letter from the ministry saying, 'Sorry, too bad for you, but we're not going to go along,' did you know you would fight all the way to the Supreme Court if you had to? Did you know in your heart this was the right way to go?

PD: We knew for two reasons. Technically, we'd already initiated proceedings before we got that letter. When we got the first letter, in the middle of August, the course was supposed to be implemented starting in September. After consulting with our lawyer, he said, 'Well, with any decision, if you're going to challenge it, you have to do it within 30 days.'

There was at least the possibility that the minister had misconstrued what we were asking. So we wrote a second letter, but we asked for a response by early September because we needed to make a decision. They didn't respond by that time, but we'd already launched proceedings based on the first letter. When they responded two months later, in late November, to our second letter, then we amended the proceedings to include the second decision.

C: You knew as the principal of the school that this was the right thing to do. There was a principle to uphold, and there was going to be a fight if they didn't agree.

PD: Absolutely. I'm not the one who ultimately made that decision. It was my recommendation, but a lot of other people were involved, especially because we're a Jesuit school. Our president, our board, and then also the Provincial of the Jesuit Society had to be of one mind when it came to going to court.

C: You mentioned that you have to continue to work with the ministry, to get along with them. I think it's important to be clear, because the case began under a Liberal government, that you weren't dealing with caricatures of wild-eyed separatists acting out of old hatred for the Catholic Church. This was a Liberal government. Would you agree that part of what you were doing was challenging the zeitgeist that prevails in Quebec in matters of State-Church relations? You weren't just taking on a political party, you were taking on something much broader than that.

PD: Absolutely. We're becoming a more secular society, which is fine as it stands, but we need to try to understand what it means to say that the government is secular. That's a huge question. To think of it in terms of saying, 'Well, it means the government doesn't take any stand with regard to religion, but allows religions to thrive and to grow' — that's one approach.

The other approach, and this is where the concern came, is if you say, 'Well, because the government is secular, we need to make sure that everything that even touches the State is also secular.' This decision seemed to reflect that second approach, and that's a problem. It's not a political-party-based thing. It's a philosophy of what society is and what society should be and particularly the role that the State has with regard to religion. Those were big concerns in this whole process.

C:Have you, as the case wound its way through Superior Court and then through the Appeal Court and now to the Supreme Court of Canada, encountered resistance from, not necessarily the government but from other Quebecers? From individuals who say, 'Look, let this go. This belongs to the 1950s. You have to understand Quebec is a secular State and a secular society. Live with it.'

PD: We got that more at the beginning than now. One of the things that happened, and it's one of the problems with media reporting, is that getting the whole picture sometimes is quite difficult. At the beginning, in particular, I think a lot of people interpreted our objections as being that we don't want to teach about world religions, that we want to ram Catholicism down people's throats. We got a lot of criticism based on that assumption, which was completely false.

I think as time went on and more people started to understand what it is we were actually doing and what was really going on, it reversed itself. I think we have much greater support than we did at the beginning, and probably more so in the anglophone community. I don't think that is a reflection of the values of the anglophone community. I think it just has to do with a level of communication — they understand more about who we are and what we do because we are members of the anglophone community.

C: There was the Drummondville case, of course, in which francophone parents fought what seems like a very similar legal fight and lost in the Supreme Court of Canada. When they lost, did that make your heart sink? Did you think, 'Uh oh, maybe this wasn't what we should have done?' Did you do any second-guessing then?

PD:Yes and no. Obviously, it wasn't the happiest news to hear that the Drummondville parents lost their case. However, we were very, very sure right from the beginning that we wanted to keep our case distinct from Drummondville because the issues are quite different. For example, when Drummondville went to court, we did not intervene. We didn't act as intervenors, and that was very intentional because any relationship really comes from a misunderstanding of what the two cases are about.

The Drummondville parents wanted to remove their kids from the ERC course altogether. They were individuals saying, 'We don't want to do something that is State-mandated.' I won't comment on whether I think that was the right decision or wrong decision. In our case, we're not saying we want to withdraw but that we want to do it differently. We want to do it in a way that reflects our institutional identity. It's a very different issue than in the Drummondville case.

So, yes, it was disappointing to see the results because we knew, certainly in popular opinion anyway, that people would see the cases as related. But we felt very strongly from the beginning that the outcome of one would not necessarily be related to the outcome of the other.

C: Let me ask you about that institutional nature of Loyola. You're a product of Loyola?

PD: I am.

C: You were educated at Loyola. Your affinity to the school is deeply personal. This is a school that's an essential part, a defining part, of your life, of your identity. Is it fair to say that, at some level, you're defending an understanding — a historical reality — of Loyola as the school that you knew and have always known? You're defending that continuity at a personal level?

PD:Essentially what the minister's action comes down to is saying that the approach that Loyola has had, and the approach that has evolved with Loyola over time, is no longer relevant in our society. For me, what Loyola does with its students, the impact that Loyola can have on society through its graduates and through its own actions, is so important to our society. To be told that we cannot operate that way anymore, I think it's a huge loss for what the institution is.

My experience in my own education here has formed me very much in terms of what I believe, in terms of how I interact with society and what my role is in terms of trying to make this society a better place. I believe that role is almost more important now than when the school was one of many that were doing the same kind of thing.

C: You love philosophy; you're a student of philosophy. We've had conversations about the Socratic method, understanding what constitutes knowledge, that knowledge isn't something you put on like a hat but is essential to your personhood. How does that fit your understanding of what Loyola is and the importance of fighting this case?

PD: Any educational system that focuses only on getting information or requiring information, to my mind, is not going to be anywhere near as strong as an education that teaches students how to think, how to approach problems that are out there in the world. That's what a Loyola education is about.

The idea is not to tell people what to do but to engage them in a dialogue that lets them arrive at a way of seeing, a way of thinking, a way of solving problems. That's what formed Governor General Georges Vanier and Jean Vanier and our current minister of finance, all of whom attended Loyola. Whether or not graduates end up agreeing with the overall philosophy of the school — and in some cases they don't — it has trained them in a way of thinking and in a way of approaching the world. There's a rigour to the way they approach any type of problem, whether it's academic or social or religious. That kind of training, to me, is sadly lacking in many places.

C: You're more than a graduate and the principal of Loyola High School. You are immersed in an Ignatian approach to spiritual life as well, aren't you? You have done the Ignatian spiritual exercises. You see the human need for engaging in that kind of work. How does that play into what's happening here?

PD: I think one of the key things, and it shows up both in its educational philosophy and in the spirituality you see through the exercises, is that it comes down to an absolute awe of the human person that God has created, of each individual person. There's an assumption that the capacity given by God in that human person is what needs to be tapped into.

The way the exercises work is that the facilitator of the exercise, the director, isn't trying to teach a bunch of things, he's trying to help you get to a position where you can listen to what it is God is asking of you. That's the same approach we take educationally. It's not to give the students a bunch of information but to help them get to where they can learn and grow on their own. The two are very much related.

Again, we're in a society where we think of religion as a bunch of rules or doctrines and things like that. But it isn't about that. Your faith ultimately is about the personal relationship you have with your God. What Ignatian spirituality does is help us to encourage the kids to put themselves in the position where they can enter into that relationship, but then it's between them and God not between them and the teacher. That's very much a core part of both the spirituality and the approach to faith and God but it's also core to our approach to education and learning of all types.

C: The now well-known Jesuit Pope Francis recently wrote an apostolic exhortation in which he criticized the 'ideology of ethics' and cautioned people against evangelizing as though they've just come back from a funeral. Clearly that's intrinsic to the Jesuit way of looking at the world.

PD: Just look at the history of the Jesuits. They came in right at the time when the Protestant Reformation was growing and there was a rejection of the dogmatism that was seen in the Church. When Ignatius comes around, the exercises become the chief means of bringing people into a sense of their spirituality. It reengages the individual person. It's a Christian humanism that recognizes there's no such thing as 'just human' because God is found in all things.

The key is to find where God is in all of those ordinary daily things about ourselves and the people in the world around us. That's core, and it values the human because the human is, in some sense, connected to the Divine.

C: I was mentioning to some of my neo-Calvinist colleagues at Cardus recently that when a group of Dutch Calvinists steps up to help in a legal fight involving a school named after Saint Ignatius of Loyola, as Cardus has done, you know Christ has moved to the centre.

PD: Absolutely. There are 11 intervenors in our case. There are a number of different Christian groups and some secular groups as well. For me, that's fascinating. Apart from the ones who are intervening, we've had conversations with people in the Jewish community and the Muslim community. The support is strong. It's very interesting in terms of what it does for our sense of unity and the value to our life other than just the physical, the things that are out there in front of us.

C: Has it challenged your own faith in any way? Have you sometimes wondered whether taking on a burden like this is really what you're called to do? Where you're supposed to go?

PD: I'm not sure that it's challenged my own sense of belief or my relationship with God. It has, though, been challenging at different times in terms of asking myself whether this is actually where I'm called to be. That was particularly true at the beginning, when we weren't sure of even the support of our own community, which has since become clear in its support.

On the level of my own work and vocation here, the amount of time and effort and energy that it's taken has definitely caused me to question whether or not this is where I should be. But I think the people who are around, the people who are part of my life at the school and in my community, the support that's come from them and the strength that they have in terms of being able to pick up whatever I couldn't, has been terrific. And that's what gets you through whatever difficult or doubtful moments you face.

C: Whatever the outcome of the case, what comes after this?

PD: I don't know. This is actually my last year as principal at Loyola. I very likely won't be the principal when the decision comes down. What my next pathway is hasn't revealed itself yet, but I believe very strongly in this community, Loyola High School in particular but the English Catholic community in Montreal more generally. I believe I have something to contribute there. But it may be that a rest is also part of what's in store for me. I really don't know what's coming up next, but hopefully the grace is there to handle whatever is put on my plate.

C: Do you think that going through this has enhanced or challenged your sense of the role of faith in the common life of Canadians?

PD: I think more than anything it adds to that because it has brought into perspective what our faith is about. We tend to think of faith in very personal terms, as in how it affects me and it's just between me and God, that's all there is to it. Part of our belief as Catholics is that it's not enough to be an island, that we have an impact on the world around us. That's what we're called to. I think this has brought into stronger focus for me what my faith is all about and what role it has to play in the world and in the people around me.

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