Constitutional amendment on religious education in Newfoundland: Bishops cannot be heard

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The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) was invited to present a brief on November 24, 1997, to The Special Joint Committee of the House of Commons and the Senate regarding the resolution to amend the Constitution of Canada with respect to Term 17 and the Terms of Union for Newfoundland and Canada.

omaraCanadian bishops have recently been informed by the Clerk of the Committee that time constraints prohibit the Committee from hearing their presentation. "Because of the serious nature of the resolution before Parliament, said new Bishop Douglas Crosby of Labrador City-Schefferville and general secretary of the CCCB, we deeply regret that we cannot be heard. Nonetheless, he added, we submit for the review and serious consideration of members of Parliament and Senators the intervention we were to present."  Because the members of the Executive Committee of the CCCB are in Rome attending the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for America, Bishop John O'Mara, a member of the English Sector Episcopal Commission for Christian Education of the CCCB, was prepared to present the following brief.


1. Introduction

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops would like to thank members of the Committee for the opportunity to participate in these hearings. The resolution that you have been asked to approve has important ramifications for parents, children, and religious education. It deeply concerns many Canadians across the country.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) was founded more than fifty years ago and is the national association of Catholic bishops in Canada. The bishops of the seventy-five Catholic dioceses are charged with the pastoral care of approximately 12.5 million Catholics. The Canadian bishops are also divided into four regional episcopal conferences and more informal provincial groupings. It is these bishops who are primarily responsible for Catholic school questions which have evolved in different ways in the various corners of the country.

In appearing before you today, the CCCB wishes to express its solidarity and support for the position of the bishops of Newfoundland and Labrador who we understand will be here later this week. The CCCB has been active in bringing a moral, philosophical and pastoral perspective to a number of critical public policy issues and has developed for its English-language sector a religious education program that is accepted by the Newfoundland and Labrador bishops.

On June 26,1996, a delegation from the CCCB appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs with respect to the first attempt of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to amend the Constitution. A copy of the brief that was presented to the Senate Committee is annexed to this text. Rather than repeat everything that was said in 1996 and taking into account that the provincial government is now proposing to substitute a secular public school system for the denominational rights guaranteed under the Constitution, we propose to make three points that are critical for your deliberations: 1) the basic educational rights and responsibilities of parents, 2) the incompetence of a government to write a course in religion, and 3) the contribution of Catholic education to the common good.

2. The basic educational rights and responsibilities of parents

Parents have the primary responsibility for the care, upbringing and education of their children. It is the task of governments to help them fulfill this vital responsibility. Because of their primary and irreplaceable role, parents have the right to choose the kind of education they want for their children and to choose a school that corresponds to their own convictions, subject to standards of viability. In our view, public authorities must guarantee this parental right. The proposal that is before you takes away parental choice because it establishes one public secular school system which disregards parents' rights to educate their children according to their religious values. Simply put, there would be only one kind of school.

3. The incompetence of government to provide a course in religion

Clause (2) of the proposed amendment to Term 17 reads as follows: In and for the Province of Newfoundland, the Legislature shall have exclusive authority to make laws in relation to education, but shall provide for courses in religion that are not specific to a religious denomination. This remarkable clause purports to give the provincial government the exclusive authority to provide courses in religion. Instead of their own religious education programs taught by their own teachers — something which they have enjoyed for one hundred and fifty years, and guaranteed by the Constitution — Roman Catholics in Newfoundland are offered the vague possibility of courses in religion that are not specific to a religious denomination.

The proposal before you is so disturbing because it appears to create a secular religion that will ultimately undermine religious belief. It assumes that religion can be treated as a subject instead of as a way of life and a faith to be handed on. It weakens the ability of the particular denomination or religion to pass on its faith to its own members and, in the end, may undermine a person's ability to see the value in any particular religion. And who will teach these courses? At a time when religious studies programs at universities are moving away from having a particular religion taught by someone who has not practised that faith, this proposal seems a backward step. Apart from appearing to create a secular religion, the proposal completely overlooks the fact that in the Roman Catholic Church the only person who can decide on the content of a religious education program for Roman Catholic children is the local bishop. As previously mentioned, the bishops of Newfoundland and Labrador have accepted the religious education program developed and published by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. No matter how well educated or well meaning, government officials are simply not competent to provide a religious education program that is appropriate for Roman Catholic children.

4. The contribution of Catholic education to the common good

Roman Catholics share with other Christians and members of other world religions the view that education should have a spiritual element. The Chief Rabbi of Britain has said Secularize education and you diminish it. You diminish its power for children; you diminish the dignity of our teachers; you diminish the value of educations as an end in itself. It is our profound conviction that faith-based institutions in general and Catholic schools in particular contribute to and enrich Canadian society. Students develop a sense of meaning and values by being assured that love, spirituality, sexuality and social justice ultimately do matter. Families and society as a whole benefit from these institutions which mediate moral and spiritual beliefs, together with those attitudes necessary for a continuing sense of community as well as cultural and spiritual identity.

5. Conclusion

In the proposal before you, it is not only a constitutional right that is at risk, but the right of a minority. It is fundamental in any democratic nation that minorities are ensured that their concerns will be heard and rights respected. Members of the Committee, we ask you to give careful consideration to the concerns of Catholics and members of the Pentecostal Assemblies and Seventh Day Adventists in Newfoundland and to suggest to the Government of Canada that it evaluate what appears to have been an arbitrary and divisive method of amending a constitutionally guaranteed right.

Presented by Most Rev. John O'Mara Bishop of St. Catharines
Episcopal Commission for Christian Education
November 24,1997

For More Information Contact:
Deacon William Kokesch
Director, Communications Service


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