Archive for the ‘Citizenship’ Category

The Roman Catholic Bishops of Canada — Freedom of Conscience and Religion

June 8, 2012

The Roman Catholic Bishops of Canada have recently published a pastoral letter.

The Bishops begin by writing that “We are writing this pastoral letter to men and women of good will because of our conviction that religious believers can enrich society with their innumerable contributions to culture, political and economic life, health care and education.” I share the Bishops’ conviction.

The Bishops go on to say that “freedom of religion… implies the ability to embrace and openly practice one’s faith, both individually and communally, within society. It is directly related to freedom of conscience inasmuch as conscience, oriented to truth, is formed by religious faith.” I agree with the Bishops, at the same time raising a caution.

There are three problems with attributing truth to religious faith.

The first is that some “religions” are created by frauds in order to dupe others, or they are created by malevolent people in order to ensnare others.

The second problem is that while great and enduring religions may be “oriented to truth”, their orientation may be way off base from time to time. This has certainly been the experience of the Roman Catholic Church, as in the case of Galileo. There are good Catholics who believe, today, that the Church is off base with respect to the role of women, gender assignment and sexual orientation, and other issues.

This raises a third problem that comes with attributing truth to religious faith. Sometimes the institutions of a Church hold to a very different understanding of ‘truth’ than do the parishioners in the pews. And then, not every church has a hierarchical organization: not every church would place “truth” with the clergy alone, rather than with the congregants as well as the clergy.

For all of these reasons, in a civil democracy, freedom of religion is not conceived of as unrestricted, and it is not unrestricted in law or in practice. In Canada, as elsewhere, there are limits on religious freedom and the limits — including any restatements of them — are matters difficult to debate, difficult to decide, and fraught with political tensions (and even dangers). But from time to time we must have the debate. As the Bishops themselves say, quoting the Pontifical Council: “believers also need to recognize that “just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good.”

So far, our limits have relied on a solid framework. We can distinguish between what is done, on the one hand, in the public sphere but as a private person, and what is done, on the other hand, in the public sphere by someone whose role is as the voice, hands, or feet of the public in service to others of the public.

We allow individuals to say things in the public square that we would not allow a teacher representative of the whole community to say in a public school classroom. We allow a doctor who operates outside medicare to withhold a service although the withholding would be unacceptable if the doctor were receiving public funds. We allow clergy to decline to officiate at a religious ceremony uniting two people, although we would not allow a Marriage Commissioner, representing civil society, to refuse to officiate at a civil ceremony that embodies civil law.

The Bible says that we should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The corollary is that when a citizen represents Caesar, as an agent of the public, in the performance of a public act, Caesar’s rules apply.

This raises the question of the unjust law or, more difficult, the public policy which a citizen (or the citizen’s Church leaders) believes is morally wrong. Assuming that a matter of conscience separates a faithful believer from the law or policy of his civil community, what is he or she to do?

In a civil democratic society, we acknowledge and respect at least two honourable courses of action. The first is to resign, withdraw from the position in which one finds conflict of conscience. Cabinet Ministers and others have resigned from office. (Admittedly, that doesn’t happen often these days, but it is there for the person of conscience.) Conscientious objectors may be excused from military service, but if they join the army they must accept the terms of its discipline.

The second course of action is to engage in civil disobedience, a concept that is widely misunderstood these days. Civil disobedience is not premised on people breaking the law in secret, or publicly breaking with law and continuing, with immunity and with impunity. Civil disobedience is premised on people breaking the law in very public fashion, and accepting the consequences in the hope that public reaction will subsequently force a change in the law or the public policy. The Bishops write: “We recommend the following … to our fellow citizens: … protect the right to conscientious objection.” But conscientious objection without being willing to pay the price is mere theatrics. The Bishops may wish to go further. They may wish to advocate civil disobedience. (One of the most listened to songs on my iPhone is “Have you been to jail for justice?” sung by Peter, Paul and Mary.)

The Bishops express concern that “when it (freedom of religion) is threatened, all other rights are weakened and society suffers.” I understand their concern, but I would word the sentiment somewhat differently. Freedoms are constantly threatened. Threats alone do not weaken society, weak responses to threats weaken society. Threats may strengthen society, if the response is wise (imaginative, creative, and inclusive), strong, flexible, and mindful of posterity.

To put it another way, religious freedom is just as threatened by religious license as it is by religious oppression. Religious freedom, like every other freedom, exists and is strong when it is in tension with other rights and responsibilities.

The Bishops are right to express concern about freedom of religion and conscience. As a community, we should always be concerned about our freedoms, and our responsibilities. The Bishops are right to acknowledge “just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good”: this is the role of civil society.

Beyond that, it seems that some readers have read too much into the Pastoral Letter. The Bishops do not say that freedom of religion and conscience are absolute, and they certainly don’t say that it should be religious teachings that determine the boundaries (see above).

One very appropriate boundary for civil society to enforce is that, when a person of faith undertakes a position that represents the public to any citizen, the person of faith must represent the public fully and generously. If that is not possible, freedom of religion and conscience simply provides that the person is free to withdraw from the role, or free to challenge the role and face the civil consequences.

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Democratic Reform — can’t we be more upbeat?

April 11, 2012

“Democratic reform” is a term that doesn’t often excite most citizens. And most citizens view those excited by democratic reform as having a masochistic streak.

The term makes it sound as though we have failed, or have at least let our democracy fall into disrepair. The term suggests that we need to redeem the status quo with some pretty serious restoration or some incrementtal improvements, to get us back on track.

Let’s shift our focus. Instead of thinking about “reform”, why don’t we think about AiD — an “Adventure in Democracy”.

The democracy we are familiar with is essentially 175 – 200 years old. It’s held up pretty well in the face of immense technological and social changes. It’s time for us to adopt a more modern view of democracy itself, at which point the challenge is not to cut out the corrupt, or restore the familiar, or make incremental improvements to the status quo.

The way our political mechanisms work reflects the pre-democratic conviction that sovereignty flows from the top down — citizens are not really moral enough, or educated enough, or social enough to really participate in the decision-making process, so we should only allow limited citizen participation (consultations, and advisory boards, and letter-writing, etc.) and leave the decision-making to the ‘proper authorities’, the elected representatives who have become moral enough, or educated enough, or social enough through the experience of being elected (or perhaps, through the experience of belonging to a party that does their thinking for them).

There is a model of government called “subsidiarity”, which says that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people who will live with them, and the person or people at the very top should decide exactly where decisions are made. Democracy represents a model of government in which decisions are made as close as possible to the people who will live with them, and the people who will live with them decide exactly where decisions are made.

Every Albertan is also a Canadian, and also a citizen of a city, town, or village, or rural municipality. It is not for the government of Canada to decide how the decision-making pie is sliced, and it is not for the government of Alberta to make that decision, and it is not for our local council to make that decision. All of these elected representatives are our servants, and they must let citizens decide which servant will do which work.

We don’t need to reform democracy, in order to improve on the status quo, or correct our previous errors.

We need to think of democracy as an adventure into unknown — and incredibly rich — territory. We shouldn’t think of our work as ‘reform’, and the drudgery that needs to be done ‘to clean up’. We should think about creation and invention, faithful to the ideas of:
• freedom from tyranny (and from being a tyrant);
• harmony
• the rule of law;
• natural equality;
• citizen wisdom; and
• education; and,
• forward-looking wisdom without certain knowledge.
(my thanks again to Paul Woodruff).

Particularly at this time, we don’t want politicians telling us how they would ‘reform’ the system. Left to their own devices, that could prove to be very self-serving. We should welcome input from every candidate and every party, but now is the time that citizens should claim the primary role of inventor of the democracy to come.

The sky’s the limit for good ideas — great ideas. However we have arrived at the felt need to do good work to promote democracy, let’s make the most of the opportunity.

To promote the conversation, think of
• the electoral process, including how we choose our representatives (first past the post, or proportional representation, or some other means); who is entitled to vote; means of representative accountability (such as recall);
• the role and organization of parties; campaigning, including financing elections, advertising, using new technology (robo-calls);
• the role and organization of the Legislative Assembly and the role and organization of caucus (including party discipline); the purpose of Committees; the Officers of the Legislative Assembly, setting M.L.A. pay;
• citizen participation (citizen initiatives) and decision-making (for example, when the Constitution of Alberta is amended [yes, there is a Constitution of Alberta]) — Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy, and whiste-blower legislation.

One of the choices available to Albertans in this election is to be the last out of the past as far as democratic processes are concerned (the most sophisticated expression of the old way of doing politics), or we can be first into the future, exploring 21st century ways of living democracy.

An Important Provincial Election in Alberta

March 28, 2012

Every provincial election is important.  Sometimes we don’t appreciate the importance of an election until years later.  The election of 1993 returned a government that many Albertans thought had been ‘tired’ and was suddenly invigorated by a new leader – Ralph Klein.  It wasn’t until years later that we came face to face with the consequences of blowing up hospitals, reducing the number of medical and nursing students, regionalizing health care, centralizing control of education, eliminating regional planning commissions…

Almost 20 years later Albertans are considering whether to re-elect a now 42 year old Progressive Conservative government.

On the way to casting a ballot, citizens will be considering five different types of questions.

  1. Is the current government good for another term, or does it need to be replaced?  Criticism is heard, but is it valid?  Is the governing party tired, arrogant and bullying?  Does it have the attitude that it is entitled to govern?  Do Tory candidates have the attitude that they are entitled to have someone carry their bags, and entitled to appoint friends and supporters to various positions?  Has the bullying that is much talked about in the press originated with the P.C. government as an institution, or has it been the work of individuals acting alone and contrary to the spirit of the party?  Does the Tory party recognize the challenges facing Alberta?  Does it have new ideas for dealing with new circumstances and new opportunities?  Does it have the energy and the will for a new style of politics, a new approach to issues and decision-making, and a new relationship with voters?
  2. Did the Progressive Conservative Party enthusiastically choose Alison Redford to be its new Leader, and will the Party welcome new attitudes, new values and policies, new ways of organizing, and new decisions, or will the Party establishment and culture change Alison Redford, so that she conforms to well-established ways of thinking, doing things, and relating to the public?
  3. What is the role of an M.L.A., and how does the role do justice to the interests of individual voters, the interests of the local community, the interests of the province as a whole, and the interests of the Party the M.L.A. belongs to?  What should we consider when evaluating and comparing candidates?
  4. When thinking about the next government, could any Party other than the Progressive Conservatives govern well? What is the role of the Party Leader?  What should I consider when evaluating and comparing Party Leaders?  What is the role of any Party other than the government Party?
  5. What issues are important to us, as individuals, as family, as community?  What are the important values reflected in the issues?  What are the consequences if the issues are handled well, or badly?  What should I weigh before I cast my ballot?

During the course of the election campaign I intend to blog about each cluster of questions.  I would like these posts to be part of a conversation with you.    What values and issues and questions are important to you?  Looking ahead, how do you evaluate the prospects for each of the parties?  Is there a candidate – or more than one – whose campaign and election prospects you are specially following, and why?

On Leadership — Peter Lougheed and Luis Urzua (Part 3)

April 6, 2011

MacGregor Burns wrote a great book on Leadership.  He made two important arguments that many have since adopted.

Burns proposed that there are three stages of leadership:  transmissional; transactional; and transformational.  Transmissional leadership is Joe Stalin (or the boss) saying, “Do this or I will fire you (or worse).”  Transactional leadership is Stephen Harper saying “If you do this for me, I’ll do that for you.”  Transformational leadership is Nelson Mandela saying, “We are going to recreate South Africa as the rainbow nation and each of us, whether black, or white, or mixed race, is going to be transformed – different in the result than we are now and in some important way, better off.”

Burns argued that both transmissional and transactional leadership are insufficient and inherently undermine democracy.  He thought that transformational leadership is essential and inevitable (but perhaps not imminent).

The second important insight that Burns had was that “leadership” is not really the label for the characteristics of the person who is the leader.  It is really the label for the characteristics of the relationship between the ‘Leader’ and the ‘followers’.  Burns characterized progress as being like a ricocheting bundle of energy that bounces back and forth between parallel rails ascending upward.  As Gandhi is reputed to have said:  “Sometimes I am the leader of my people; and sometimes they lead me.”

(Perhaps we should study leadership less and citizenship more, including both effective leadership and discerning followership.)

My personal experience with Peter Lougheed, and my reading about Luis Urzua support Burns arguments.

Transformational leadership:

• is all about relationships;

• respects every person, and helps each person grow and lead as best they can;

• moves people to a place where they may be better off, and changes them in the process;

• does not leave the sick, or wounded, or destitute, or grieving behind;

• is democratic;

• offers hope to the larger community, beyond where transformation is being worked.

Whether in a place as blessed as Alberta in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and ‘80’s, or in a place as bleak as a deep and shattered mine in 2010, transformational leadership is what we need, and sometimes discover.  We need to look for it more often, and look for it inside ourselves and in our neighbours.