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Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Myth of State Neutrality

An interesting legal case involving the intersection of the role of the state and religious communities in the formation of society and culture, and whether private communities can organize themselves according to values that contrast with the current crop of secular goals, is budding in Quebec, Canada.  Loyola High School and John Zucchi v. Michelle Courchesne, in her capacity as Minister of Education, asks whether the state can require a Catholic high school to teach classes informed by the “Ethics and Religious Culture” curriculum, which counters traditional Catholic education in that it prioritizes the values of pluralism and diversity in a different way.  At issue is whether religious entities, such as schools, which undeniably contribute (and have contributed for centuries) to the formation of public citizens, can choose to educate students as they see fit, or instead must teach the one-size-fits all, and allegedly “value-less” state curriculum.

Although reasonable people can disagree about the role of the state in citizenship formation and whether the state should play a larger role than private entities such as churches or parochial schools, I find Prof. Farrow’s discussion of how the state cannot claim its program is neutral fascinating.  Indeed, Prof. Farrow points out that the state’s presentation of its program as value neutral given its appreciation of diversity and pluralism, in contrast to sectarian religious beliefs, is misleading because the the state’s program has purposes of its own, which of course are born from the values it seeks to pursue.  In other words, a state’s preference for a particular program by definition accepts a certain set of values, even if those values are vague or lack depth.  This is Farrow’s critique:

This presents us with something of a conundrum: Pluralism may celebrate the fact that different ethnic and religious or cultural groups bump up against each other in the public sphere. It may celebrate the multicultural reality of a country with a high rate of immigration from diverse places. There is no conundrum there; nor does one need to be a pluralist in order to join the celebration. But if pluralism – as a political philosophy or educational strategy, not as a cultural landscape – is to guarantee the engagement that creates a common society, and if indeed it is to do so by policing the engagement in an attempt to see that no one principle or ideal dominates, what then are we to make of pluralism itself? Is its very normativity not in fact its self-contradiction?

In the present case, if I understand it properly, what is at issue is whether the pluralist philosophy, and its pedagogical correlatives, should prevail by force of law. That is, whether it should be imposed upon those who do not share it or think it sound; and whether the hegemony of pluralism, backed by government fiat, should extend even into the realm of religious schools. I will say more about that in the final section. All that needs to be said here is that its imposition cannot be justified in the name of some putative “neutrality” that is characteristic of pluralism. Pluralism is not neutral, nor, as we shall see, is the ERC program that has taken pluralism as its foundation.

Seen in this light, normative pluralism is about suppressing diversity, not supporting it.  It tends to monoculturalism, not multiculturalism or even “interculturalism.” It is more Rousseauvian than Rawlsian, more statist than democratic. It has a place for any religious culture that cedes to the state final authority over religious culture, and no place for any that does not. A revealing footnote in the main ERC consultation document actually indicates that the purpose of the program is to “allow Québec students to develop a religious culture consistent with ministerial orientations.”

Although one may disagree with Farrow’s overarching conclusions about the intentions of the administrators of the ERC, it seems apparent that his critique of the program’s stated objectives, namely promoting a culture of pluralism, is valid.  The state cannot claim that the content of a program or value system, because it appreciates diversity or pluralism, concepts and ideas that are supposedly devoid of values, thereby renders the state’s promotion of the program devoid of a value preference.  In other words, a state’s preference of a program, law, idea, or policy intrinsically involves a preference.  When the state moves, it moves somewhere, even if it claims that its action and direction moves the state nowhere.

Further, Farrow’s critique of so-called normative pluralism is persuasive as well.  As I understand it, Farrow is basically saying that the state cannot claim to appreciate diversity by mandating that communities discuss, present, and appreciate such diversity in a certain way.  In reality, this results in a homogenous response to diversity, which of course, by definition, is hard to wrap one’s head around.  How much can the state ask its citizens to appreciate diversity if the state tells citizens how to do so rather than letting citizens and communities express the richness of their differences?  A secular space cannot acknowledge the value of diversity and multiculturalism if those diverse cultures are forced by the state to approach diversity according to the state’s wishes.  Indeed, which model is a truer recognition of diversity in a pluralistic, democratic state:

(a) a secular space filled by various different communities that are forced by the state to conform their beliefs and behavior to preeminent state values, as defined by the state and including state understandings of the values in those communities, inside and outside of that secular space; or

(b) a secular space filled by various different communities that are freed by the state to express their beliefs and behavior, in contrast to state values, or in place of them, inside and outside of that secular space?

It would seem that model “B” more accurately reflects a traditional understanding of multiculturalism because it leaves room for self-identity without the intrusion of the state.  After all, isn’t one of the primary goals of the modern, liberal democratic state the promotion of self-identity based on autonomy?  It would seem Farrow’s critique of the ERC’s claim to neutrality suggests that the state is not promoting that end of the democratic state even though the state would have you believe otherwise.



The Service of the Church

As the world waits for the election of a new Pope, it is refreshing to see stories of the Church’s positive effect on culture and society around the world, such as this front-page article from today’s NYTimes.  Here is a snippet:

“After work, a lot of young people come to Mass,” said Chinedu Okani, 29, an engineer in Lagos who was attending a service at the Church of the Assumption in the Falomo neighborhood. “It provides a serene environment.”

He acknowledges another attraction, too: that the church is a functioning institution in a country that lacks them. “The welfare system is not working here,” Mr. Okani said. “We find a way to make up for it: the family, and the church.”

In Nigeria, at least 70 percent of the people live below the poverty line, and 80 percent of the country’s oil wealth goes to 1 percent of the population. The police do not respond to calls, and electricity is spotty.

Outside Christ the King, on the dirt streets of the Mushin neighborhood, there are armed robbers and no lights. It is little wonder that the priest must gently shoo away parishioners lingering to read or chat in the church’s arcaded meeting spaces under generator-powered lights.

“A lot of it is the challenge of living in Nigeria,” said Father Ikechi, who was educated at Fordham University in New York. “We can’t rely on the government for water, light, security. Whatever you want, you have to provide for yourself.”

For his parishioners, he said, “what they face is huge. So they tend to come to God as their last resort. You can’t go to the police. Who will you go to? You will go to God. Some of them, where they sleep is so bad, they just come to sleep here during the day.”

After a devastating bus accident recently the church paid parishioners’ hospital bills, the priest said. “Otherwise they would die,” he said.

In this way the church is fulfilling a role it played in its distant European past, providing for the people where the state cannot, but some question whether the African church’s growth and size can be sustained as the continent’s institutions develop.

“When people say Africa is the future, I say, ‘Oh, isn’t it the past?’ ” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “I see it as a repeat of the past, what happened in Europe centuries ago. What’s going to happen in Africa when everybody gets a television set, when modernity comes?”

For now, that question is largely academic here.

“Almost every system has collapsed,” said Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, in northwestern Nigeria. “The entire architecture of governance has collapsed. The church remains the only moral force.

“The church offers the best schools, social services, medicine. The God talk in Africa is a mark of the failure of the economic, social and political system,” Bishop Kukah added, “We are being called left, right and center to mend the broken pieces of what are considered the failing states of Africa.”

Let’s hope that observers continue to recognize the positive fruits of institutional religion rather than simply focusing on the intrigue and majesty surrounding the election of a new Pope.

The Pope’s (Petrine) Genius

Of all of the responses to Pope Benedict’s surprising (albeit not unprecedented) decision to resign (technically abdicate) the Papacy, the least shocking has been the American media’s unyielding desire to view the Pontiff’s action and legacy only as it relates to the American political spectrum.  Regrettably, the mainstream media’s fascination with putting Benedict’s papacy into the boxes that our society seeks to place every politician affects the way most Americans, including Catholics, view Benedict’s legacy and decision.

When will the media realize that neither the Pope nor the Church are mere political institutions, or better yet, creatures capable of being defined by American politics?  The media too often confuses the Church’s actions–which certainly effect the political realm, like any other member of society–with its nature.  Similarly, Benedict’s speeches, communications, and reiteration of Catholic teaching are not purely political stances.  Truth be told, the doctrines of the Church may have political ramifications; but that does not mean that the basis of those doctrines is political at its core.

The sad reality is that the mainstream media cannot contemplate human action without referencing the political implications of such action.  What does that say about our society, when the sacred, religious, whimsical, comedic, satirical, and spiritual can only be understood through a confined political lens?  I, for one, am willing to admit that most people and institutions, including the Church, the Pope, and its members, are more than political animals.  Perhaps this is why the media cannot understand the spiritual side of our country and how it motivates action.

This tendency to diagnose actions as inherently political, especially defined according to the American political framework, makes it difficult for us to truly understand the significance of Benedict’s decision.  To be clear, Benedict abdicated not only one of the most important positions in the world today; he relinquished one of the most important positions in the history of the world.  This reality magnifies the dose of humility that Benedict has just offered to the world; unfortunately for the American media, humility does not have a place on the American political spectrum and therefore makes the Pope’s act incomprehensible.  No wonder Benedict’s decision is met with such incomprehension masked as awe.


Yet this humility is precisely the genius of Benedict’s decision, and in my opinion, in hindsight will cause not only Catholics but many so-called neutral or secular observers to recall Benedict’s judgment with admiration.  Benedict’s action has the power to radically transform the image of the Church and therefore the lives of countless believers because it is inherently Petrine.  Through humility, he has managed to enhance the Church’s prestige and attractiveness (has anyone else noticed how fascinated and curious everyone is again by the possibility of a new Pope?).  By abdicating, he has strengthened future successors of St. Peter by allowing them to acknowledge how their humanity and faults are indeed part of the Papacy.  And most importantly, by admitting his shortcomings, he has reminded the world that St. Peter was a leader who had fallen many times before, only to ask the Lord for renewal and forgiveness.   He has laid the groundwork for the Church and the Papacy to make a comeback by paradoxically reintroducing the world to the inherent beauty and limits of the Papacy at the same time.

Truth be told, is it possible that Benedict’s greatest contribution to the new evangelization, one of the main objectives of his tenure, will be his decision to personally withdraw from evangelizing by recognizing that the good of the Church requires a new leader?  Is it possible that he has returned the story of the Papacy to the simple, yet magnificent and incredible story of the tarnished St. Peter, who as a fisherman who followed the fisher of men is someone we can all relate to in his failings and also his hope?