Why I’m Not Cheering the “Loyola” Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court of Canada has now decided, albeit in an almost even split vote, the case of Loyola High School, a private Jesuit school in Quebec. The issue is whether such a school can be compelled to teach the provincially mandated Ethics and Religious Culture curriculum (ERC), as it is to be taught in every other school in the province, or whether Loyola should be allowed to teach its own version from a Roman Catholic perspective.

Lots of Christians, including many I personally like and respect, are rejoicing that the SCC has “finally” recognized religious rights. As a Christian professor of ethics and religious culture, however, I think Loyola’s objection has been misguided and the SCC decision is a mistake.

A legitimate worry from the religious side is that the ERC might be understood to require every teacher to affirm each and every variety of ethics or religion that might surface in a class. But it doesn’t, and for good reason. It would be simply monstrous to compel a teacher, whatever his or her beliefs and whatever school in which he or she is teaching, to affirm a belief in genocide, say, or the oppression of women, or sedition in the name of this or that theocracy. The ERC curriculum does not in fact mandate such ethical idiocy.

Instead, the ERC curriculum submits the discussion of ethics and religion to social scientific and philosophical discipline. Religions are to be described as historical phenomena with the intention of understanding them analytically, not judging them theologically. And ethical decision-making is to be studied philosophically in order to foster careful and consistent deliberation.

The teacher, representing the school and the state, must maintain neutrality—note: not affirmation—regarding the various options. She does so, just as professors of religion already do in public universities, in order that students may explore the vexed world of ethical reasoning and the variety of religious options without any compulsion to decide one way or another. For now—and that is the crucial qualifier: for now—teacher and students are to simply look hard at the religious realities of the world in order to understand their neighbours and themselves a little better.

Some religious people are protesting that the Quebec government is out to convince its pupils that all religions are the same, or that it doesn’t matter what religion you pick, or that the claims of Christianity to offer the one true gospel are wrong. These alarmists warn that the ERC is foisting a “religion of the State” and an implicit secularism on its young citizens.

Given the PQ’s recent and reprehensible Charter of Values, one can well understand this suspicion toward the ERC curriculum. But the ERC arose much earlier than did the Charter of Values, under a different regime, and in consultation with notable Christian educators.

The ERC curriculum offers a sensible attempt to acquaint students with the realities of Quebec’s cultural history as religion pertains to it; to help them think better about religious and ethical questions; to increase their understanding of religion’s relationship to culture; and to emphasize commonalities among various religious outlooks. (That includes secularist outlooks, as the curriculum explicitly recognizes “non-religious” viewpoints that function as religions.) The objective is to equip young people to build a common life with their neighbours of various outlooks.

This agenda is not at all inconsistent with Roman Catholicism, nor with any other form of orthodox Christianity. Christians properly engage in the social scientific and philosophical discussion of religion and ethics all the time.

The category mistake that the supporters of Loyola’s case seem to be making is a basic one: confusing the properly neutral discourse of the academic study of religion and the properly neutral stance of the state toward religions, on the one hand, with a secularist, anti-religious agenda, on the other. (And to those who cry, “No discourse is neutral!” I reply, But some discourses, such as the academic study of religion, try to be, and adopt disciplines to guide it accordingly. And surely we want the state to be as neutral as possible on such matters.)

Loyola instead should teach the ERC just as it is, without feeling it has to keep saying “and our religion is the right one” all the time, in order to give its students a brief opportunity to just look carefully, and without immediate theological judgment, at religious options and to think in publicly plausible categories regarding ethics. Loyola then can (and should) add its own courses to present an explicitly Catholic understanding of religion and ethics. How can such a combination of study not produce Catholic students who will be better informed about their neighbours and, indeed, more appreciative of their Catholic heritage?

For once, we can celebrate a government initiative that actually responds well to a key need of our time: to help Canadians learn about themselves and others, to cultivate respect for our past and for each other, and to position us to carry out our common life more knowledgeably and cooperatively. Vive le Québec!

UPDATE: Previous posts on the ERC and related questions are here, here, and here.