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Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair stipulated famously that “we don’t do religion,” meaning that his government would not let religion enter into its policy-making. There are very good reason for this. For starters, our religious beliefs – or their absence - are our individual, private affairs.
There is a multitude of religions out there, and evidence for the truth of any of them is notoriously hard to come by. For any government trying to survive politically within a multicultural, pluralistic society, it would be foolish to take sides in the religious-belief competition. After all, some religions don’t want you to eat pork (incidentally, that does not stop adherents of these anti-pork religions from serious disliking each other ), others tell you that homosexuality is terribly sinful while the next religion will happily marry gay couples, and so it goes in the religious-belief free-for-all.
Smart politicians have long understood that it is not good policy to drag religion from the private sphere, where it properly belongs, into the public domain. We rightly protect people’s rights to hold conscientious religious and other beliefs, but that surely is where it should end.
Not so in Canada. During the last session of Parliament, and again in the current Parliament, respectively, Liberal and Conservative MPs introduced private members’ bills aimed at inflicting a John Paul II Day on Canada. This is so obviously wrong-headed, it is difficult to decide where to start.
Looking back at this pope’s legacy, John Paul II was a highly conservative head of the Roman Catholic Church. Under his leadership, pedophilia in the church was not addressed seriously, and repeat offenders were busily shuffled through the worldwide church empire. He invariably made the noises about this behaviour being bad, but he did little to follow through as the man in charge.
His views on artificial insemination, abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality are considered offensive by the overwhelming majority of Canadians. This did not stop him from proactively lobbying Jean Chretien at the time against marriage equality, because the thought of providing equal rights to gay and lesbian Canadians was something this Catholic pontiff was not prepared to tolerate, not even in a country that was not his own. Well, that is if you accept that all-male Vatican as a country, of sorts.
John Paul II has rightly been criticized by public health and reproductive health experts for his absolute prohibition on condoms. He did not care that it could reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, and he certainly did not like the idea of preventing the birth of unwanted children. Under his leadership his clergy campaigned in many developing countries relentlessly against sex-education campaigns involving the use of condoms. Deliberate misinformation, in the name of God, was not beneath many of these campaigners.
You could say that all this is all too well-known, so why drag the dirt on this pope out again on this occasion? Why speak ill of the dead?
Well, without good reason, the House of Commons has voted already in favour of establishing a John Paul II Day in Canada. The bill is now in the Senate. What is driving our parliamentarians to honour such a highly divisive figure, a man whose views on what constitutes a good life are clearly not shared by most of us? In fact, John Paul II’s views on these issues are not even shared by the majority of Catholic Canadians. He was a conservative radical, by any stretch of the imagination.
Now, even if you disagree with my characterization of John Paul II – and I do not quite see how you can without falsifying the historical record – there are other problems with honouring him in the way the majority of our parliamentarians propose.
The inevitable question this “honouring” business gives rise to is this: Where should we draw the line? What other religious figurehead is next? How about the founder of the Church of Scientology, the deceased science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard? Or perhaps we should next honour a Muslim cleric for good balance?
The bottom line is this: Religion is a private and typically highly divisive issue. The truth of religious beliefs cannot be established. It is bad public policy in modern, multicultural societies to honour religious figureheads. In the case of John Paul II, it is a slap in the face of secular Canadians, gays and lesbians, any woman who has ever had an abortion, people who avail themselves of artificial means of reproduction, and anyone who has ever dared to make use of a condom. That’s a lot of Canadians!
If our politicians want to honour people by dedicating a day to them, may I suggest they choose less-controversial figures such as Nelson Mandela, for instance.