If you reject Christianity, don't join the Church

It’s Easter and time for the annual journalistic display of baffled hostility to Christianity. On cue the Roman Catholic archbishop of Ottawa, Terrence Prendergast, pops up with the suggestion that adherents to his church who don’t actually observe its rules should not expect to enjoy all the benefits of membership. A predictable chorus of howls erupted. The archbishop might be forgiven for wondering why. No one would think themselves entitled to join a chess club but refuse to move bits of plastic around an 8x8 square board. If they insisted on denouncing the game as a colossal waste of time for losers who couldn’t get a date using the Benoni counter-gambit (purely hypothetically, you understand), or showed up and played trumpet instead of chess, club officials would try to reason with them but, if that failed, would insist that they depart. And no one would think it odd. What, then, is so hard to grasp about the Catholic Church being a voluntary organization with rules that are meant to be enforced?

Remember, people who say they are Roman Catholics necessarily claim to believe the Pope is the heir of St. Peter to whom Christ gave the keys of the kingdom. This belief may be false or even foolish. But it’s no secret. And Canada is a free country so you are free to reject it. The one thing you can’t do is reject the authority of the Bishop of Rome yet remain in his Church, any more than you can go to a chess club and deny that its bishops move diagonally.

It is especially pitiful to hear politicians say they are obliged to represent their constituents, not their faith. They wouldn’t say that about their economic beliefs, and you’d think salvation mattered more than stagflation. An honest and lucid man would surely tell voters he holds certain fundamental beliefs that entail certain policy positions, and he’d invite only those who share most or all of those positions to vote for him.

Roman Catholics would then say they oppose abortion on religious grounds and welcome the votes of anyone who, for whatever reason, is also prolife. Atheists or agnostics would say they don’t know what God wants, if anything, but here are their policies; members of some faiths could say they think God is cool with abortion and so are they. In each case there would be no taint of hypocrisy. But anyone who says they know what God wants, they just don’t care, is acting like an idiot and should be denied political power on that basis alone.

Especially as Easter seems a particularly propitious time to ask whether your soul is not more important than your seat in Parliament. Certainly it’s a lot more permanent. Only if the result of this soul-searching is negative, if you conclude that winning an election is more important than standing up for things you claim to believe are the will of God almighty, creator of heaven and earth and our judge when time itself has ended, is it appropriate to say although I am Catholic I will govern as an atheist. In which case you’re in a pretty feeble position to object if sternly excommunicated.

There is nothing oppressive about this statement. The Inquisition put away the thumbscrews years ago. No one is suggesting introducing theocracy, making it mandatory to join the Roman Catholic Church, or illegal to oppose its teachings in print or on the stump, provided you have a willing audience. They’re simply saying you have no more right to make those arguments within the Church, physically or metaphysically, than to insist on playing jazz in a chess club.

Why would you even want to? I can understand a politician lying about religion to deceive the public, but that can hardly be the motive today. I don’t imagine that one voter in five knows Stephen Harper’s religion (Protestant), let alone cares. And in any event, if politicians were pretending to be Catholic to win votes, they’d presumably feign adherence to Church teachings. Something else is going on, and it’s not pretty.

What scandalizes moderns about the church, I think, is not what it believes but simply that it believes. We are perfectly at ease with Christian clergy who deny the divinity of Christ or the resurrection, don druid suits and praise shariah law, or claim they can be at the same time priests and imams. Just as we are happy to give tenure to academics who proclaim that there is no truth, and give large fees to artists who insist that their works do not communicate or uplift and are not meant to. But we are baffled that the Pope is Catholic and if you don’t like it you need to find, or found, another church.

So get all those bishops out of my way, and rooks. I’m gonna sing, loud and flat.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, ReligionJohn Robson