Quebec Catholic school principal fights for right to teach religion course with faith

Paul Donovan, the principal of a Catholic high school in Montreal, is in the midst of a cross-country road show. He wants to warn Canadians about what is at stake if Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values becomes law and bans the wearing of religious symbols in public buildings. The principal of Loyola High School has been battling the provincial government in court for the right to teach a mandated religion and ethics course from a Catholic perspective. The province wants it taught without regard to any religion. In 2010 a Quebec Superior Court said the school had the right to teach a religion course from the perspective of its faith. Two years later an appeals court ruled in favour of Quebec; next year the Supreme Court of Canada will make a final decision. National Post religion reporter Charles Lewis spoke to Mr. Donovan, who began by linking his school’s case with what he believes is the intention of the charter.

A: The charter and our case are both a reflection of how the government sees society. [We believe in the notion] that government should practise “open secularism.” In that case the government has no preference for any religious view or non-religious view. And the job is to have a society in which all ideas and beliefs can develop and grow. But Quebec is now moving towards “closed secularism,” in which the government says not only are we secular but we want society secular as well. And religion moves back into the homes and the churches and stays out of the public square all together.

Q: Some say that because you receive a government subsidy you should do as Quebec asks. How do you respond?

A: The subsidies are a complete non-issue in this case because in Quebec the course has to be taught whether funded or not. But even if you want to view it as Loyola taking “secular” funding it shouldn’t matter. We still teach math, English, French, history. So we are doing what Quebec wants all schools to do.

Q: So you have no trouble in promoting pluralism, which is the stated aim of the course?

A: We are in agreement with those goals. We just want to teach it from a Catholic point of view. Quebec wants us to keep any explanation out of why people believe what they believe. You are supposed to say this is what they believe and that’s it. The government requires that when you’re dealing with other religions that the teacher in the classroom completely disassociates himself from any religious perspective or religious value. So we can never say, ‘As Catholics, we see this…’

Q: What if a student raises the questions about Catholic perspective. Are you allowed to answer?

A: No. The government wants statements about religious belief to be absolute. They’re not to be argued. They cannot be seen as rational. In Catholicism, St. Thomas Aquinas said reason is the first step to faith. So we are not allowed to be who we are.

Q: Religious literacy is pretty low in Europe and North America. Wouldn’t this course, even taught the way Quebec wants, at least give students some basic knowledge they might not get otherwise?

A: I guess they’re trying to find a way to let the students in a secular school gain some religious literacy — though I would argue if it’s just religious culture it’s not really literacy because nothing is really being explained.

Q: Let’s broaden this out. Even at a societal level, whether it is in Quebec or elsewhere, religious arguments on policy seem to be ignored or even greeted with hostility. Even so-called secular arguments made by a religious person are met with suspicion of a “hidden agenda.” Why do you think that is?

A: I teach philosophy to Grade 11 kids. And one of the first things we do is go over logical fallacies. It’s also called ‘poisoning the well.’ It says, ‘I’m going to assume because your view is also religious that this is really a religious argument so none of it’s valid.’ So a Catholic can’t argue anything, even from a secular perspective, because they’ll be told, ‘As a Catholic, of course you’re going to say that.’ It doesn’t look at the argument and ask whether they are valid arguments. Instead they’re automatically dismissed because the person is religious.

Q: So what does this ultimately mean for the place of religion in society?

A: What it’s saying is if you have a religious outlook you can’t serve the common good. Under the charter someone in the Quebec government would never be able serve the common good if they were religious. So the charter would remove any indication that the person is religious by banning outward symbols. It’s the same argument about why we can’t do the program the way we want. You have a religious view so therefore you can’t serve the common good. You as a Catholic can’t possibly inform kids about other religions.