The Canadian province of Ontario’s education minister appears to believe her government has the authority to decree an end to a debate that has been going on for at least four decades in North America. She is also claiming a right to tell Roman Catholic schools what they can and cannot promote as Catholic teaching. And all this on the pretext of putting an end to bullying.
Last month Laurel Broten convened a news conference at Queen’s Park, Toronto, to express her displeasure at three Progressive Conservative MPPs arguing against taxpayer support for abortion earlier that day. Citing Bill-13, the province’s controversial anti-bullying law, Broten castigated them for reopening an issue that should remain closed. “I think it is critically important for Ontario women to understand that our government, our Premier, Premier McGuinty, that we support a woman’s right to choose. That debate is over, it has ended and it should stay that way.”
Furthermore, Broten argued that Catholic schools should not be advancing the pro-life cause, because it violates this hallowed right to choose. “[W]e do not allow and we’re very clear with the passage of Bill 13 that Catholic teachings cannot be taught in our schools that violates [sic] human rights . . . . Bill 13 is about tackling misogyny, taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take.”
Three observations are in order.
First, name-calling is in effect an act of desperation and a tacit admission that one’s own arguments have been insufficient to carry the day. If you cannot through reasoned deliberation persuade your opponents of the rightness of your cause, then it is tempting to force an end to the discussion if you have the power to do so. If that means labelling your opponents misogynists, so be it. Broten may indeed think the debate ended long ago, but there are plenty of people in Ontario and elsewhere who would dispute her interpretation. Campaign Life Coalition and ProWomanProLife come to mind here. Broten’s pronouncement is wishful thinking at best.
Second, a government official lacks the normative competence to decide what a church’s teachings should be. Canada does not have an established church under government jurisdiction. A political office-holder obviously exceeds the mandate of her office when she dares to decide what a church is and is not allowed to teach as doctrine. Only ecclesiastical office-bearers have this right, which they exercise according to their own understanding of divine revelation. To run such teachings past the political authorities is not a requirement here in Canada. China may try legally to prevent Buddhist monks from reincarnating without government permission, but that’s not how we do things in this country. Broten should read Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms if she is unclear on this point.
Third and finally, Broten’s understanding of what constitutes a person’s identity is faulty in the extreme. Broten implicitly defines our identity as a mere assertion of autonomy, that is, of the right to choose apart from any “thick” conception of the human person dependent on norms not of our own making. If a woman wishes to harm her own body or the foetal life growing within her, it is her decision to make, whatever its impact on herself, her loved ones and the larger social fabric.
In reality, of course, human beings are far from autonomous, and the validity of their decisions can never be vindicated by a mere right to choose. After all, even Broten could hardly argue that a woman has the right to sell herself into slavery, even though its legal prohibition appears to constrain her freedom of choice.
Our world belongs to God, and we are not our own. We always answer to Another, who has called us to live for his honour and glory. Everything we do depends on the norms by which he upholds his creation. Such norms prohibit governments from overreaching their authority by interfering in areas outside their proper jurisdiction. Perhaps we need an anti-bullying law to prevent ministers of education from bullying faith-based schools and others who dare to dissent from their desire to dictate dogma.
David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions, and is currently seeking a publisher for his new book on authority, office and the image of God. This piece appeared in slightly different form in the 12 November 2012 issue of Christian Courier.