Churches risk los­ing their moral au­thor­ity

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - OPINION - By Greg Neiman

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.

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