Churches risk losing their moral authority
PEOPLE join religious organizations for as many reasons as there are people. They decide to leave or ignore religion for just as many reasons. Each decision is personal.
Even so, reasons for joining up can be broadly categorized, and one main reason is adhering to a religious faith gives one a well-considered moral anchor to underpin the decisions people make in their day-to-day lives.
The Golden Rule is pretty well universal, but it can encompass hundreds of subtexts. Deciding on them has kept theologians employed since before people built the pyramids.
But what happens when the decisions of church authorities are out of step with the moral understanding of parishioners? When this happens, we get the studies that document the empty pews.
Recent events offer a couple of examples.
Canada’s mainline churches are just beginning to formulate (or update) faith statements on doctor-assisted suicide. To oversimplify for the sake of a column, their considerations must balance belief in the sanctity of life as a God-given gift and the notion Godfearing people need to respect the law but are free to make their own choices.
The law of the land, as interpreted by our Supreme Court, holds Canadians have the right to exercise their autonomy — the right to decide for themselves when they die — if they are extremely ill and suffering intolerable pain. Federal legislation (Bill C-14) proposes to align our Criminal Code with that court decision.
The bill is subject to wide criticism. The arguments around C-14 and doctor-assisted suicide inevitably break down to individual cases, but governments must write blanket legislation. And churches feel the need to make blanket judgments on issues of life and death as well.
The trouble is, just as happened with long-ago public debates over the morality of divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage, the people in the church pews are very familiar with individual cases that do not align with blanket church policy.
And that major category of reasons for joining a church — having a moral anchor upon which to make decisions — has been weakened.
In another example, Canadians have learned a large group of Catholic organizations was inexplicably let off the hook for $25 million in reparations to people hurt in Catholic residential schools. By an alleged misunderstanding between lawyers, of all things.
Former federal Conservative minister of aboriginal affairs Jim Prentice and former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine determined in 2006 a group of more than 50 Catholic organizations should pay reparations in the amount of $79 million. This was to be part of reconciliation over the tragedy of abuses that had victimized children in the residential schools.
Some of the money — $29 million — was to be paid immediately. Another $25 million was to be paid through in-kind services. A further $25 million was to be raised through internal fundraising.
The first two obligations have been met. But years later, fundraising had only gathered about $3.7 million. Here’s where the misunderstanding apparently comes in. A judge in Saskatchewan ruled a third party might reasonably conclude a federal lawyer agreed the Catholic groups had tried hard enough to complete their obligations and were therefore not required to raise the rest of the money.
Somehow, this became a legal thing. A legal thing, but not a moral one in the eyes of people in the pews, on the streets and in the aboriginal communities.
So how do church leaders rule from the pulpit on moral issues such as the right to decide one’s death in certain cases when the history of church hierarchy on issues of divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage or obligations to people who have been harmed have been out of step with laws made in our democracy? When some of the people in the pews are themselves outside official church dogma, or have a different moral code?
Ultimately, faith is an individual decision. Joining a faith group widens individual choices into decisions made by a congregation and its leaders — the people called explain the Golden Rule in all its complexity.
Every generation, every decade almost, has its moral crisis. Today’s crisis is about how people in extreme pain can decide to end their pain.
The bond between believers and church leadership today depends more on guiding and supporting individuals than accepting doctrine proclaimed from on high. Doctrine has proven to be less eternal than we used to think.
Better to ponder how faith groups can console the survivors of people who make a legal choice to end their own suffering and leave judgment to even higher authorities. Greg Neiman is a freelance editor, columnist and blogger living in Red Deer, Alta.
Church authorities are sometimes out of step with the moral beliefs of parishioners.