Humanist Perspectives: issue 188: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
by Richard Young

A Catholic priest and residential school students prepare to board a bus in Quebec.
(Archival photo: First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission)

It’s a shameful part of North American history that once upon a time, not so very long ago, you could be denied a seat on a bus, or admission into a school, or a patch of sand on a public beach if you happened to have the “wrong” skin colour. The so-called Jim Crow Laws that tainted so much of the United States up until just a few decades ago still haunt America’s collective psyche.

Of the 150,000 children that were forced to attend these schools, a shockingly large number endured physical, mental and sexual abuse. Moreover, thousands died..

Canada’s hands aren’t clean, either. News stories in recent years have raised our awareness of the horrific and long-lasting effects that Indian Residential Schools have had on First Nations, Inuit and Métis children. On paper, these schools – run by Christian churches and financed by the government – existed to integrate First Nations kids into mainstream Canada. But with the benefit of hindsight we now see that something truly sinister happened – sinister far beyond the systematic destruction of First Nations languages and cultures.

Of the 150,000 children that were removed from their communities and forced to attend these schools, a shockingly large number endured physical, mental and sexual abuse. Moreover, thousands died. CTV News reported that student deaths were so much part of the system, architectural plans for many schools included cemeteries that were laid out in advance of the building.

The mind reels.

In 2007, the government and surviving victims reached a settlement in the form of a $1.9-billion compensation package. Formal apologies plus payment have come from the Canadian government along with three of the four Churches responsible. As of this writing, there remains one that has held back with its apology and with the tens of millions of dollars owed. It is the one Church that is by far the largest and wealthiest, and it is also the one that ran three-quarters of these schools. It is the Roman Catholic Church.

You may have heard that this Church has a new Pope. He’s been on all the front pages, all the magazine covers (except for one, at least). He’s usually smiling, sometimes waving, and often making waves with his “revolutionary” pronouncements on the value of kindness, as though he invented the idea of compassion in a Vatican lab just last year and then immediately patented it.

He is treated by the adoring media like he’s man’s gift to God. Perhaps compared to his Lord Palpatine of a predecessor he is, at least in terms of PR skills.

But actions speak louder than words, and by almost every measure, his actions fall short. observed that

[t]he Vatican announced that bus-riding, foot-washing Pope Francis supports his predecessor’s crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization that represents 80 percent of nuns in the United States.

Like Pope Emeritus Benedict, Francis believes that the nuns focus too much on serving their communities around issues of health care and economic justice and too little on gay people and abortion. In a report issued by the Vatican under Benedict’s leadership, the Holy See accused the group of undermining “issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality” and promoting a “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

So, on that front at least, it is business as usual.

(Speaking of nuns that try not to let their religion get in the way of doing the right thing, you’ll find a review of the excellent BBC series Call the Midwife on page 36.)

How about on the matter of dealing with the surviving victims of the residential schools? In our new Noteworthy section, on page 24, you can read a news brief about exactly how generous this new Pope is when it comes to having Catholic dollars compensate the victims of the Catholic residential schools. It would not be too much of a surprise if, by the end of all of its nickel-and-diming, the Vatican will have paid more to its lawyers than to its victims.

Also in Noteworthy, another talk-is-cheap incident is described, this time in relation to the Church’s attitude toward child sexual abuse by its clergy. It seems that the Holy See is disinclined to cooperate – beyond the uttering of platitudes – with a UN investigation.

Some might say it’s too early to tell, but it certainly seems that the reports of the death of the Vatican’s asset protection above all else mindset have been greatly exaggerated.

On the matter of “asset protection above all else”, the back cover of this issue depicts this concept with a simple picture that is well worth its thousand words.

The Jim Crow Laws mentioned in the first paragraph might make us Canadians feel like getting up on our high horse. After all, we would never deny a kid admission to a public school because of the colour of his/her skin! But the sad fact of the matter is that some of our provinces still deny publicly funded school admission to students whose only “shortcoming” is the colour of their faith.

Allowing Catholic bishops to control a multi-billion dollar public service remains Canada’s most egregious violation of the principle of separation of church and state.

Surely this selfless new Pope with his hyper-keen moral clarity will recognize the injustice of forcing Ontarians to spend billions of dollars annually to subsidize the wealthist organization on Earth. Surely he will graciously insist that we instead spend the money building new hospitals for everyone’s benefit.


— Richard Young, Ottawa