The Catholic "Civil Rights" League, the Roman Catholic church, and the nature of civil rights

by Jamie MacKinnon

Beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability (2 Peter 3)

To say that the Roman Catholic church is not above reproach is to state a simple truth. As one would expect with any large institution, and one with nearly 2000 years of history, the Roman Catholic church is a complex entity. It is also a body fractured by internal conflict.

The RC church may be the only church in which a majority of adherents reject key tenets of doctrine. Polls consistently show that a majority of people who call themselves Roman Catholics disagree with the church’s stand on contraception and abortion. Likewise, a majority of Roman Catholics think that women should be allowed to be ordained as priests. Despite the gap between what Roman Catholics believe and what the church requires them to believe, surprisingly few RCs seek out another faith that more closely matches their beliefs. Many simply abstain from attending church.

The problems with the RC church are deeply rooted and intertwined. Even problems from the distant past haunt the church today. A short list of these problems would include:
- an unenlightened, male-centred view of gender, with implications for an understanding of human rights and the human condition
- the commingling of commerce with the promise of salvation, with implications for interpretation of scripture
- an infallible-executive complex in the institution of the papacy, with implications for epistemology and the reasoning individual
- the persecution of other faiths over the centuries, with implications for an understanding of intercultural discourse
- the support given over many centuries to repressive, dictatorial regimes, with implications for the possibility of freedom and for the exercise of faith
- the construction and propagation of a destructive, unscientific view of sexuality, with implications for society, the environment, and psychic health

They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse (Romans 2)

A peculiar manifestation of Roman Catholicism is something called the Catholic Civil Rights League. The League likes to lodge complaints whenever it perceives that Roman Catholicism has been slighted. The League complained a few years ago to the hate crimes unit of the Ottawa-Carleton police of “attacks” on Roman Catholicism by a local (and admittedly, godawful) entertainment weekly, the Ottawa X-Press. The complaint coincidentally fell close to the date of the 100th anniversary (1998) of Emile Zola’s famous “J’accuse” article.

Explicitly an indictment of the French military, “J’accuse” was implicitly an indictment of France’s Roman Catholic establishment. Earlier, in 1894, the RC church had put all of Zola’s articles on its notorious “Index.” With this historical echo in mind, it occurs to me that it would be useful to make some accusations myself, primarily against the Catholic Civil Rights League, but by extension against those elements of the Roman Catholic church that stand in the way of - - even oppose - - real civil rights.

Put simply, I accuse the CCRL and many Roman Catholics of working to undermine real civil rights in Canada. The CCRL is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a civil rights group. In many ways it’s implicitly and explicitly opposed to the very idea of civil rights.

Start with the name. “Catholic civil rights” is Newspeak, and a contradiction in terms. By definition, “civil” (i.e., of or belonging to citizens) rights belong to all people who live in a common polity. Not just True Believers, or Aryans, or atheists, or tall people, or any sub-set of the polity. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines civil as “belonging to ordinary citizens and their concerns, as distinct from military or naval or ecclesiastical matters.”

Moreover, the organization is clearly Roman Catholic, but by dropping the “Roman,” the CCRL implies that other Christian groups (Anglicans for example) are on board with them. The implication is false.

Consider the group’s mission. Civil rights workers don’t work for self-interest, except indirectly. They work on behalf of people with whom they often don’t agree, whose beliefs are often repugnant. They work for the common weal. The CCRL doesn’t do this. It lobbies for a better public image for the Roman Catholic church. It advocates group “rights,” which are really privileges or benefits for a special interest group. The CCRL says that it works to influence “public policy and public opinion with light from religious [i.e., Roman Catholic] faith.” Some of this energy goes into denigrating individuals and groups (see below) with whom it does not agree.

He who speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit (Proverbs 12)

In September 1997, the President of the Canadian Catholic Civil Rights League, Thomas Langan, wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail, the gist of which was that “Christians” were, by unnamed agents, being “beaten up,” and losing their freedom and “ability to live according to their conscience.”

Mr. Langan didn’t provide one iota of evidence to back up these extravagant claims, but the article did betray a hostility to civil rights, most especially freedom of expression.

Langan complained that a drawing that showed a crucified Jesus being sodomized by a priest had won first prize in a juried art competition. Langan was irate that “two Manitoba artists, subsidized by the government” sat on the jury, but a “letter campaign [protesting the award] was met by a government disclaimer of all responsibility.”

It would seem to me that one obvious interpretation of such a drawing would be that when a priest sodomizes a child, the priest insults and degrades the Lord Jesus — a useful reminder, I would think, of the link between our sins and Christ’s suffering. That would be a general defence of the drawing. A more specific one might be that it reminds us that RC priests have in fact sodomized children and thus committed violence against Christ.

I wrote Mr. Langan to ask him what his point was. Would he rather artists not address the shameful reality of priests abusing children? Was he promoting censorship? An end to government sponsorship of the arts? Or mob approval of arts prizes? Mr. Langan didn’t answer any of these questions. But he did call the piece of art a “blasphemy” – a strong judgment, for it appears that Mr. Langan had never seen the drawing.

In the Globe article, Mr. Langan used some pretty slippery language. He talked about the right in Newfoundland of “Christians to have their own public [sic] schools” when he clearly meant the right of some Christian sects, not all, to public money for sectarian schools. Public schools by definition are non-parochial.

Langan often uses the word “Christian” as camouflage for “Roman Catholic.” Decoded into plain English, “Christian views of appropriate ways to deal with population pressures” means Roman Catholic opposition to the pill. But Christians — the vast majority of them — strongly support the use of the pill. Why doesn’t the CCRL use clear language? Why would it hide Roman Catholic dogma under the cloak of Christianity? Many Christians, particularly Protestants, will find the equating of Christianity with Roman Catholicism grossly offensive. You’d think that Mr. Langan hadn’t heard of the Reformation.

Lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. (Proverbs 31)

What is it about sex that leads the R.C. to actions so contrary to the teachings of Jesus? To take but one illustrative example: as I write (July 2001), the Roman Catholic church in Kenya is lobbying against the import of condoms, a recent government initiative in its fight against AIDS. The fact that some 700 Kenyans die each day of AIDS appears to matter less to the R.C. church than the “promiscuity” the church sees implied in having condoms available. One hopes that church officials will be able to explain their opposition to the hundreds of thousands of African AIDS orphans, who, should they survive to adulthood, might pose some anguished questions.

The real test of people’s commitment to civil rights is the degree to which they give up their own privileges and work to enhance the rights of all. The CCRL doesn’t do this.

If the CCRL were really interested in civil rights, it would, for example, campaign to encourage Roman Catholics to boycott the separate school system until all groups have equal access to funding. Sadly, neither the CCRL nor the R.C. church works to end discrimination in school funding in Ontario. In Ontario, Roman Catholics are the only religious or special interest group to receive full public funding for primary and secondary schooling.

Canada is a signator to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires each “state party” (i.e., Canada) to take the necessary actions – legislative, constitutional or other – to “give effect to the rights recognized by” the Covenant. The United Nations has found Canada in violation of the Covenant because of Ontario’s discriminatory educational funding system. Roman Catholics who support civil rights should refuse this discriminatory funding and demand an end to the discrimination. Few Roman Catholics in Ontario have or do.

If the CCRL really believed in civil rights, it would mount a campaign to re-open the public hospital in Pembroke, Ontario, which was closed following a successful lobbying effort by the staff of town’s R.C. hospital to remain open. The League has no such plans. The CCRL apparently prefers that Moslems, Protestants, atheists and Jews with health care needs go to a Roman Catholic hospital, or, if offended by R.C. dogma, beg for a ride to a public hospital in Renfrew or Ottawa. An odd take on civil rights.

The CCRL charter says that the League opposes “discrimination against Catholics in the workplace” (and doesn’t detail instances of this discrimination) and yet is silent on the issue of ongoing, systemic discrimination by Roman Catholic school boards against non-Roman Catholics. Why?

The CCRL says that religious freedom is an “inalienable right.” Well, yes. How courageous. We do have a degree of religious freedom in Canada — despite and not thanks to the efforts of the Roman Catholic church. But the League doesn’t seem to understand that civil society can only function effectively when religion is not embedded in the state.

In many respects, the CCRL is only reflecting the Roman Catholic church’s long history of “beating up on” others, and of opposition to civil rights. The Inquisition. The persecution of “infidels.” Most significantly and shamefully in our century, the Roman Catholic church turning a blind eye to the horrors of the Holocaust.

The Lord has broken the staff of the wicked, the sceptre of rulers, that smote the peoples in wrath with unceasing blows, that ruled the nations in anger with unrelenting persecution (Isaiah 14)

I mentioned this latter moral failure to Mr. Langan. He denied any such RC-church failure during the Holocaust. In his letter to me, he said that he was “quite well informed” about the Roman Catholic church’s actions during WW II, and that my statement that the church had turned a blind eye to the Holocaust was simply “not supported by the facts.”

The well-informed Langan appears not to be aware of the 1997 apology by the Roman Catholic church in France for “its silence during the systematic persecution and deportation of Jews” (Globe and Mail, Oct. 1, 1997). Fifty years late, many would say, but better late than never. Bishop Olivier de Berranger said that the Roman Catholic church of France “bears responsibility of not having offered help immediately, when protest and protection were possible and necessary . . . We confess this mistake.” And, as the Globe noted: “Historians have repeatedly said that the French Catholic church’s indifference to the anti-Jewish laws allowed existing anti-Semitic sentiment to flourish.” Given this, I think the CCRL’s president’s refutation of my statement is both false and outrageous.

You shall have one law for the sojourner and for the native; for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24)

Unfortunately, even now, some Roman Catholics are undermining civil institutions, and campaigning for what can only be termed tribal rights.

Recently Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, archbishop of Montreal, said that the federal government’s reference to the Supreme Court on the legality of Quebec separation was frivolous and a waste of money. He said that the Supreme Court cannot tell Quebeckers whether or not they have the right to separate from Canada.

He said that it was up to the “people,” not the law, to decide. He didn’t say which people, and of course Quebec is composed of many peoples. But I think it fair to say that he wasn’t thinking of (to take but two examples) the Innu or the Cree, two peoples who have suffered abuse at the hands of the Roman Catholic church, and who may view the Supreme Court with more respect. That the archbishop’s advocacy of extralegal (or illegal) means to overthrow a legal and democratic state didn’t excite more interest in the press may show that Canadians have come to expect the Roman Catholic church to meddle in affairs of state, and to do so in an egregiously illiberal fashion.

Civil rights only exist within a legal framework, so Mr. Turcotte’s avowed opposition to the rule of law amounts to a disdain for, and opposition to, civil rights. Simply stated, when it comes to civil rights, some RCs just “don’t get it.”

A more accurate name for the Catholic “Civil Rights” League would be the Roman Catholic Advocacy Association. To me the League seems to be contaminated by The Economist calls “decadent puritanism”: a combination of avoiding real responsibility while telling everyone else what to do.

Civil rights are the foundation of a civil society. Sadly, some Roman Catholics, including the Catholic “Civil Rights” League, are working to undermine this foundation. To lobby for rights or privileges for one’s own affiliation, tribe or group, but not for all people, is to work for naked self-interest. The attenuation of civil rights and liberty, and thus the weakening of civil society, is the inevitable result. The Roman Catholic church and the Catholic Civil Rights League are instruments in this process.


The Catholic Civil Rights League -

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association -

Related reading:  a thoughtful review-essay by Colm Tóibín  —