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Everyday Theology

By Louise McEwan


Proclaiming a creed not always the best choice


It's time for more compromise when it comes to freedom of conscience and religion, as a nine-year legal battle over a prayer in Saguenay, Que., demonstrates.

Briefly, Jean Tremblay, the Catholic mayor of Saguenay, and his council were in the habit of beginning their meetings with the traditional Catholic “sign of the cross” followed by a prayer. This made Alain Simoneau, an atheist and citizen of Saguenay who attended council meetings, feel uncomfortable and excluded. He asked the mayor to discontinue the religious practice. Tremblay refused, and the game was on.

After meandering through various judicial bodies, the final match was played out before the Supreme Court of Canada who awarded the win to Simoneau and co-appellant Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ), an organization dedicated to the secularization of Quebec.

Looking in from the outside at this case, it seems to me that both sides were more intent on proclaiming a creed than on reaching a workable solution. Both, you might say, had an agenda, and finding a reasonable compromise was not on the table.

A compromise, such as praying in private before the meeting or arriving after the prayer was concluded (although this would have been slightly awkward) could have resolved the dispute. But, a compromise requires at least one side to give way, to forego “it's the principle” mentality: a mentality that has become a standard excuse for trying to prove you're right and the other person is wrong. When religion and secularism mix, it's a poor strategy if you want to persuade someone that your worldview has something positive to offer to society.

I have no doubt that Tremblay was sincere in his belief that he was fighting, as he told the Human Rights Tribunal, a noble battle for Christ. And while I admire him for his nine-year commitment to his conviction, I don't think this battle did anything much for Christ, nor am I sure this is the kind of battle in which Christ asks his disciples to engage.

As a practicing Catholic with a deep attachment to the traditions of the church, I believe we are called to find new ways to bring the gospel message to a rapidly changing world. We can cherish the outward forms of traditional prayer and worship, but form is not the end game; a particular way of praying should not become a battleground and overshadow the substance of the gospel.

Pope Francis, who is so immensely popular with Catholics and non-Catholics alike because of his authentic witness to the gospel, challenges Catholics to engage with the world, not through public displays of piety such as became an issue in Saguenay, but through personal conversion and acts of social justice.

The match up between Tremblay and Simoneau pitted Catholicism against secularism. Ironically, both worldviews promote the dignity and equality of the human person and foster respect among people. When religion and the public sphere intersect, these points of commonality often get lost when people begin clamouring for freedom of conscience and religion. A polarized “all or nothing” approach serves no one well, and does nothing to further a more just, equitable, tolerant and compassionate society.

There are some secularists who would deny the religious a public voice, arguing that religion belongs behind closed doors. But faith is not something a person turns on and off like a water tap; it informs action, and many people of faith are making enormous contributions to society. Most do so quietly, never getting into battles that make it to the highest court in the land.

While some individuals may long for a past where prayer was a staple of public life and religious beliefs were held in common, most have no desire to turn the municipal council chambers into a house of prayer.

Trail, B.C., resident Louise McEwan is a freelance writer, religion columnist and catechist. She has degrees in English and theology and is a former teacher. She blogs at Reach her at