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What's wrong with Newfoundland Catholics?

Purgatory regained, via sins of omission

How is it that Newfoundland lost its Catholic schools? We can perhaps understand what happened in Quebec after forty years of secularist propaganda, but the events in Newfoundland came as a great shock.

How do we explain that there was not one single member of the provincial legislature who opposed the Clyde Wells - Brian Tobin assault upon the educational rights of parents, who had had these rights for over 150 years? How is it that the leaders of all three parties, Liberals, Conservative, NDP, Brian Tobin, Loyola Sullivan, Jack Harris, all three Catholics, went to Ottawa and pleaded with the Prime Minister to rush through the amendment which would wipe these rights from the constitution? What is the matter with Newfoundland Catholics?

We asked Frank O'Leary of St. John's to try to give us some understanding of what's gone wrong and, if possible, to throw some light on this most difficult of questions and also one of the most important changes in recent Canadian history.

The loss of our schools was not an event but a process

Pounded on an anvil

When you've been on an anvil getting an unrelenting pounding for nearly ten years, one attribute likely pounded out of you is objectivity. That would be merely unfortunate, but it would be a tragedy if charity got pounded out too. Without it, personal relationships decay, civil society grows cold and becomes uncivil. That has been the danger, and it continues.

For sensitive souls, being a practising Catholic in Newfoundland has been a true test of faith ever since the Mount Cashel orphanage sexual abuse revelations. Without the Catholic theology of suffering, the experience would be regarded as a sheer misery rather than the extraordinary means of Grace which it can be, seen properly. But we have been treated so badly that the temptation to anger is strong. We can't understand what happened without recalling that, ultimately, we are dealing with the mystery of iniquity.

Religious racists

"You had to be there." While Catholic Insight readers had the political and legal basics of the issue explained to them, can they understand that practising Catholics in this Canadian province now know, in a very personal way, what it was like to be an outcast in society, like being a Jew in 1930s Germany?

An exaggeration? No. Canadian-style pluralism in Newfoundland means that if you don't want to be assimilated, but choose to remain apart, to be "other," you are the intolerant one. We Catholics were branded "religious bigots" for defending our constitutional rights.

Bill Rowe, for example, a lawyer, former Liberal leader and cabinet member, and host of the province's largest Open Line radio show, repeatedly stated on air that segregation of children by religion is wrong and must end. Rowe knew very well the overtones of the word segregation, its negative connotations of the American South, its image of bullheaded racists railing against the integration of black kids into white schools. It was utterly wrong to apply this term to a minority's voluntary choice. But he did it deliberately and audiences took the implication: Catholics are religious racists.

If you want to remain apart from us, that means you think you're better than we are. Ironic, though, that the pro-'reform' parents' group chose as a slogan "One province, one people, one school system". It echoes the cry of "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer" from a former day.

The experience has been positively frightening. By the end of 1997, the Liberal governments of Clyde Wells and "Catholic" Premier Brian Tobin had scapegoated and marginalized Catholics, stripped them of their natural law rights, given phony "rights" to homosexuals, and extended full funding to the clients of Morgentaler's abortuary. The media colluded every step of the way. Indeed, it would have been impossible without the media's eager participation.

Only those ignorant of history and philosophy can deny the totalitarian analogies which, one is tempted to believe, is precisely why these two subjects are neglected by an educational establishment thoroughly formed by the philosopher John Dewey. As Dewey said, "Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming." That society is Canada. The `harmony' is Canadian bogus tolerance.

A deceiving state

Newfoundland's Catholics have had the full power of a lying, cheating state turned against them, backed by the unanimity of the media, the academic establishment and the unions, all joined in a massive act of social engineering. Orwell and Kafka, Lenin and Goebbels nod knowingly. Most frightening of all, for those of us who see the parallels with the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, is that none of our fellow Newfoundlanders do. Instead, they believe they've been righteous.

To make sense of how and why all this came about one might use the former Soviet KGB's analytical method. In formulating and assessing tactics, the KGB was guided by the concept of kombinatsiya, or the correlation of forces; that is, the total effect of interplay between social, economic, cultural and moral factors. In society, as in nuclear physics, the chain reaction can't begin until critical mass has been reached. With respect to Newfoundland, this means that the accelerating secularization of society and the corresponding loss of faith prepared the way for our defeat, with the Mount Cashel scandal lighting the fuse.

In his article on the history of Catholics in Newfoundland (CI, Jan., 1996), Murray Nicolson wrote "In no place was the antagonism more vividly demonstrated than in Newfoundland where, unlike in Canada, the Penal Laws applied. And yet, regardless of the influence the Irish had in most of English-speaking Canada, it is in Newfoundland that the roots of Irish Catholic ethnicity run deepest." And therefore, too, Irish Catholic piety. But let us add at once: also Irish anti-clericalism. Outlining the numerous impediments to Catholic religious and civil rights, Nicolson continued, "It seems appropriate to look upon Newfoundland in this early period as a purgatory for the Irish."

The observation resonates in the 1990s. Undoubtedly the forces arrayed against the Catholic position - the kombinatsiya - were powerful, but that can't be the whole explanation. If the Turk was stopped at Lepanto by the rosary, the cause of Catholic education in Newfoundland was not hopeless. Or was it?

Catholics hardly "practising"

Twice above, I emphasized the word "practising" when referring to Newfoundland's Catholics. That is because I was asked to explain why the Catholic resistance collapsed in our second referendum. Exhaustion and depletion of resources is one answer. Shortage of troops and resources in the first place is the other.

Consider the following: the Catholic population forms 37% of the province's population, but the Archdiocese of St. John's recently acknowledged that but 30% practise their faith. Thus only 11% of the provincial population were even in Catholic churches in the first place to hear the bishops' letters (Which, by the way, is about all the bishops did "publicly" to defend and preserve our schools).

Add another (American) poll which discovered that only 30% of those who attend Mass understand and believe in the Real Presence in an orthodox way. That would leave us with a mere 3.3% of the provincial population who are Catholics with the supernatural resources to fight this battle. Indeed, these are the only Catholics who truly understand why we had to fight.

One can compute yet other factors into the struggle. This includes a lack of cooperation. Most zealous Catholics are not as well organized or cooperative as those in the world. One of the hardest things is to get orthodox Catholics to cooperate. (Fr. Virgil Blum, SJ, founder of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the U.S., was more blunt: most Catholics lack the courage to defend the Church and the Faith.)

Mistaken deference

Then there is lack of formation. Here it is perhaps more a matter of suffering from the defects of our virtues. Deference to authority, fidelity to the Magisterium, loyalty to the Holy Father, religious submission of mind and will are all admirable qualities and were much a part of Newfoundland Irish Catholic piety. In practice, though, they meant that the clergy didn't need to be clerical because the laity had become thoroughly clericalized in their own thinking, to the point that they misunderstood the respective roles of "clergy" and "laity," identifying the "Church" as synonymous with the clergy.

Those attributes of deference to authority, etc., no longer fully operative in a correct way, left a residue of mere habit which hamstrings the modern laity in a battle with secular forces. They still act as though only the clergy and the hierarchy have the prerogative - and responsibility - to make decisions or speak publicly on such matters. Few lay people act in concert with one another without first asking, "What does the bishop say about this?" (Often, however, that "appeal to authority" is a lazy or cowardly excuse for inaction.)

Thus when Wells defined the terms of the debate, characterizing an undemocratic, authoritarian, institutional Church opposing the democratically elected government of the people, circumstances favoured him, and our side also played right into his hands. We ourselves thought of this as "Church rights," rather than "parents' rights."

Even at the risk of sending slightly mixed messages and utilizing different arguments, every K. of C. council, CWL chapter and Catholic school principal should have spoken out in the media across the province. Instead, we had silence. Everyone waiting to see what the bishop would say. And our opponents claiming that Catholics don't think for themselves.

The difficulty of defence

But even given the organization, the cooperation and the courage, would we have had the tools? How does one first explain and then defend, to an uncomprehending skeptic, the Catholic position and philosophy of education when one doesn't know it oneself? We haven't had clear catechesis for thirty years, and for that our clergy and hierarchy must take the lion's share of the responsibility. Deficient as simple catechesis has been in the years since Vatican II, what is perhaps more relevant to our political battle, is that even at the peak of our strength years ago, there was no training in apologetics and there has never been any Catholic higher education in Newfoundland whatsoever. Most adult Catholics' formal instruction in the faith stopped at the end of grade eight or ten.

Wells's depiction, eagerly bruited by a compliant media, thus had some natural, historic resonance with a great many Catholics. But Catholics bought into it principally, I believe, because by now we were suffering from the Stockholm syndrome after the many years of intense coverage of the Mount Cashel scandal. With no voice of our own in the media, and nowhere to turn for succour, many Catholics came to identify with their `captors,' the CBC. They learn about their Church from the CBC, and see her through CBC eyes.

Once more, even this is not surprising. The Catholics in Newfoundland have permitted their consciences to be formed by cable TV, MTV and Oprah for years. These Catholics see "their" Church today as a human institution like any other. Identifying "Church" with clergy and bishops, they think it's largely the Church's own fault because in many ways her officers act like those of secular institutions, trying to be relevant to the modern world, being communal and horizontal, rather than having the courage to be a sign of contradiction to the world, emphasizing its divine character, its vertical and transcendent orientation.

For decades we've been living off the spiritual capital of our ancestors, and we're overdrawn at the Bank of God's Grace because we haven't been making deposits.

Catholic faith leached out

Our schools' vibrant Catholicism of earlier days has been leached out of them progressively over the years. It was heartbreaking to see our side defending the preservation of Catholic schools on the basis of their distinctiveness, and on the fact that the Catholic world-view permeates the entire curriculum and ethos of the school, when most of those making this argument knew that either it was no longer true or at best that the schools were pale shadows of their former selves. (Even so, they were still Catholic schools, remaining superior to the others!)

Newfoundland's educational system may have been called "denominational," but as it was fully publicly funded, and there was no purely public school system, it's equally accurate to say our system has for years in fact been a public system. The title denominational camouflaged the reality, thereby salving and soothing the consciences of the clergy, indeed the consciences of all parties, and of all denominations.

And what of parents? It is often said that either they abdicated their responsibility, or that they were too trusting - they assumed that the children were receiving sound Catholic education in our schools. But should they not have been alerted by what they experienced themselves in Church on Sundays, by which they could have put two and two together? If they hadn't heard for years from the pulpit a clear, sound, forthright and courageous sermon on any of the vital doctrines, why should they have assumed their children were getting anything better in schools?

Bait & switch

Notwithstanding all these criticisms, it is too harsh to say that Catholic resistance collapsed. For years and through two referenda, we did put up a valiant struggle. Despite everything, weak as we were, with all our shortcomings, and strong as our opponents were, it still required them to lie to win.

These lies were the Liberal governments' calculated ambiguities. In the September 1997 referendum, a great many people had been bamboozled into believing that "religious education" in a new Tobin common school system in fact meant confessional religious instruction, as presently exists in the denominationally shared `joint service' schools. But that this was not the government's intent was clarified so late in the game - and we had no media of our own to publicize the clarification - that the damage was irreversible.

We know who the Father of Lies is. Cardinal Ratzinger noted that ambiguity is the mark of the demonic. Marshall McLuhan, said in a 1972 letter that the modern media are engaged in a Luciferian conspiracy against the truth. And Larry Henderson, a former editor of the Catholic Register, and now of Challenge, once said that the most dangerous force in society today is the power of the media. The Newfoundland schools question proves those gentlemen prophets.

Well before them, though, Pope St. Pius X said: "In vain will you build churches, give missions, found schools - all your work, all your efforts will be destroyed if you are not able to wield the offensive and defensive weapon of a loyal and sincere Catholic Press. I would make any sacrifice, even to pawning my ring, pectoral cross and soutane, in order to support a Catholic paper."

That EWTN, the world's largest religious network with 1,600 affiliates broadcasting in 34 countries, can be denied entry to Canada "opposed in part by CCCB bureaucrats" can only be called demonic. Is it too much to think that had we had EWTN reaching Canadian homes, we might have preserved our schools? That EWTN might cement some of the cracks between home, church and school - in Newfoundland and other provinces?

People cannot respond to Christ's Truth unless it is first preached. Concerned Catholics must make a specific apostolate out of media work, as his Vicars have called upon us to do in Miranda Prorsus (1957), Inter Mirifica (1963), and the annual Papal Messages for World Communications Day. We must promote journals such as Catholic Insight far and wide. And we must insist that the CRTC reverse its decision and grant a licence to Mother Angelica's EWTN. Otherwise we will be still further scapegoated and marginalized. And His Message along with us.

Frank O'Leary is a board member of the Catholic Civil Rights League. A native Newfoundlander, he is an alumnus of Stonyhurst College, England and taught at Georgetown Prep School in Maryland. He runs the Special Editions bookstore in St. John's, NF (Tel: (709) 579-9909).
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Author:O'Leary, Frank
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Apr 1, 1998
Words:2683
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