Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Too Catholic for the Catholic Church?

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According to social media reporter Lindsey Wiebe, who knows a lot of things about electricity and websites and stuff, a news story about a Catholic school, an enthusiastic principal and an anti-abortion vigil late last year elicited more comments from readers than any other story in the history of the Free Press website -- 1,002 to be precise.

And that doesn't include the comments that accompanied the followup stories that came when the combination of these three elements coalesced into a crisis that has turned the life of the principal upside down, embarrassed the Catholic school system and may have brought back into the public mind the long-dormant debate over the morality of abortion.

The controversy started when former Christ the King principal David Hood was quoted in the Free Press as saying he was considering giving credits for community service to students who volunteered to attend an anti-abortion vigil.

Hood later denied having said this, but the fat was already in the fire. Public reaction was strongly opposed to such a proposal whether it had actually been made or not. Catholic school authorities cancelled it, the archdiocese vetoed it. Hood was first put on compulsory paid leave and, later, fired from his position at Christ the King. He has paid quite a price for his Catholicism.

In the meantime, public attention was drawn to the vigil opposing abortion. Until then, most Winnipeggers were blissfully unaware of the threat being posed to their "right to choose" outside the Health Sciences Centre, but once the red light went on, a handful of pro-choicers went down to counter-protest. That seems to have gone peacefully enough, even amicably, as members of both sides rationally and reasonably exchanged views. It is an indication, perhaps, that the deeply troubling moral problem of abortion may finally in Canada have become truly a matter of conscience rather than an issue of law.

Four of my children went to Christ the King school some years ago under the benign dictatorship of Sister Pat, who was principal at the time. Abortion was a more fierce public issue then but none of my kids can recall it being discussed in any detail.

I never expected that it would be. We didn't send our kids to Christ the King to learn the Catholic catechism -- that's what parents and priests are for. We sent them there because we thought it had a better atmosphere for, and attitude to, learning the basics of education. They had many schoolmates of other religions, and I suspect that is why their parents sent them there, too. I don't think we would have been happy, or they would have been happy, if our kids came and told us they, and we with them, had been urged by Sister Pat to go to a demonstration.

David Hood says: "The sanctity of human life is a precept of the Catholic faith? We are a Catholic school. What, then, is the issue?"

Actually, neither of these things is the issue. The sanctity of human life and the orthodoxy of Catholic schools are not in question.

The issue is the venue.

Hood is free to organize as many anti-abortion rallies as he chooses or is able to. He is not free to recruit his protesters from the desks of Catholic schoolrooms.

That being said, the Roman Catholic Church does come out of this as being the big loser. It looks foolish, it looks feeble and -- God, I hate to give into this caricature -- it does look a little greedy.

It looks foolish because all Catholics are expected to uphold the sanctity of life from the moment of conception to the moment of death by natural causes. Given the state of knowledge and medical science in the 21st century, to reject that belief and still remain Catholic would require some theological contortions, yet Hood stands largely alone.

It looks feeble because there is no convincing public explanation for the dismissal of David Hood. Inquiring Catholics would like to know. Was he fired for being too Catholic, for taking the Church at its word? Or was he fired for more secular reasons involving the rationale of the church itself.

And finally, the church looks a little greedy because the affair has raised once again the controversy of paying for "private" education. The issue is usually put forward as one of "separation of church and state" -- taxpayers' money should not go to fund religious schools -- but in its heart it is just the same black old bigotry of anti-Catholicism.

Without public money, small Catholic schools like Christ the King, where fees don't cost $5,000 or more a year, could not survive, at least in any semblance of a modern school. Catholic education authorities fear this.

It gives the state some influence and they know it. A better system would be to allow taxpayers to designate to which school their money will go.

That would make schools better and more courageous. In the meantime, it was not the schoolchildren of Christ the King who should have been at the vigil; it should have been the Catholic Church itself.

tom.oleson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2012 A19

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