On the theological front of today’s culture wars, Douglas Farrow takes no prisoners.
If you recognize the truth of the Catholic understanding of the human person, he says, you need to stand up, speak out, and fear not – even if it means disobeying laws that have been passed in the service of a twisted sense of freedom and equality. At risk, Farrow argues, is nothing less than the loss of our freedoms of speech, conscience, and religion in this world – and damnation in the next.
Farrow, a professor of theology and Christian thought at McGill University’s School of Religious Studies in Montreal, was the guest lecturer at the recent Anthony Jordan Lecture Series sponsored by Newman Theological College in Edmonton. Through three presentations, Farrow took his audience on a study tour of Christianity’s impact on law through the ages, the current era of ‘Liberal Public Reason,’ and the lawlessness to which it is presently giving way.
Whereas laws in the Western world were once based on a deep reservoir of Christian concepts, he noted, they are now based on a much thinner puddle – the supremacy of the autonomous self and a view of the person that is not rooted in nature. In Canada, the results can be seen in a step-by-step abandonment of Christian notions such as of the sanctity of human life, the nature of humans as male and female, and the importance of marriage and family to the common good.
“A simple example would be same-sex marriage. One cannot appeal to the biblical notion of divine design for marriage, because not all are adherents of biblical religion or believe in God. Different people have different views of sex and marriage. All that can be said about such a subject under the rules of liberal public reason is that freedom to love and equality in love reflect our common values.
“Only a cleverly managed period of adjustment in public imaging is required to get from there to a change in the legal definition of marriage, which we saw in Canada in 2005, and with that to endorsement of a new standard for sexual morality – in brief, to the normalization of homosexuality and the denormalization of most prior judgments about sexual behaviour.”
And when these changes occur, it is no longer acceptable even to speak of other ways of understanding. Those who do face mobbing on social media, destruction of reputation, job loss, and worse.
“Now there is no biological sex, only gender – defined as an understanding of your own propensity to sexual activity,” Farrow told one questioner who asked about ‘sanitized words’ that have become the politically correct norm.
He’s having none of it. In his 2018 book Theological Negotiations, the second footnote in the volume reads: “Throughout this book, as in all my books, I use gendered language freely, in the classical mode of my sources, whose anthropology I largely share. Those who will not acknowledge that God made ‘man’ male and female are today legion, but I am not among them.”
Farrow concedes that in the contemporary environment, it is not easy for Catholics to speak the truth when it comes to politically charged subjects such as abortion, sexuality, and euthanasia and assisted suicide. Even talking about God will render the speaker’s opinions suspect, since faith in God does not fall under the commonly accepted values of liberal public reason.
“Individuals or groups who do not make the requisite adjustments become targets for punitive sanctions, at first informally and then formally,” he said. “That all of this has or may have a detrimental effect on the values of freedom and love, and indeed on public cohesion, is neither debated nor regarded as debatable.”
At same time, Farrow noted that research shows many Canadian Catholics have embraced the social changes of the last 50 years – a list of laws he described as “the Canadian Carthage” – and that most of the legal revisions have occurred under governments led by Catholic prime ministers.
“It’s possible to turn back and repent of our Canadian Carthage, and to seek not some Canadian golden age of the past, but some new and more chastened version of Canada. Will that happen? I don’t know. I don’t say it won’t. I know it won’t if no one attempts to change it through their prayers and sanctity and public reason.”
In an interview with Grandin Media after his final lecture, Farrow suggested that “we were lulled to sleep by governments that still did lip service to Catholic thinking or some kind of Christian thinking, and so what we didn’t properly foresee happening was the radical rebellion against that thinking that has taken place in the media, in the courts and in the legislatures. So that we get these crazy diktats, that we should divide children from their parents and teach them to doubt their sex, and then give them chemicals and even surgery without their parents ever even knowing.
“We didn’t anticipate all of that happening. But now that we see it happening, we’re crazy if we continue on the path. You know, if you had a partner that was cheating you out of all your income, day after day, year after year, would you keep on in the agreement?”
Does that mean, for instance, that a Catholic school should refuse to teach that there are multiple genders, even if it means losing public funding?
“Absolutely. The reason I think we have to go that far is that if the government can dictate to the Church what it teaches to its own children, this is nothing short of the government claiming that all those children are in some sense wards of the state, and that the Church is merely a service industry that the state employs to instruct them. The Church cannot accept that construal of the situation. That changes the family from a pre-political institution to itself a ward of the state.”
“This is what I argued in the whole same-sex marriage business, that once you make that law, that is in effect what you’re doing, and all these consequences follow. Well, we didn’t find the courage or the means to prevent that law from passing in the form that it did. We will now have to fight it at greater expense or accept its implications, which are that the Church and the parents as well, both of those understood as pre-political communities with their own rights and privileges, that that’s gone, and that the state is absolute.
“Concede that principle, and step by step you will lose all your freedom – freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, you will lose it all.”
One solution might be to seek to change the status of publicly funded Catholic schools to charter schools, which were developed to offer educational programs that aren’t available in the public system. If that doesn’t work, then faithful Catholic parents might have to pay twice – through their taxes and through charter school fees – in order to give their kids a truly Catholic education, he said.
“If they say no, we’re not giving you any of that, if you want your own schools then you’re going to have to pay double, well then, cough it up. Because if you don’t cough it up, you can have your Cadillac, but your child is going to hell, not to put too fine a point on it.”
Farrow did express some sympathy for the position of people in political and ecclesial office and educational and healthcare bureaucracies.
“I know how difficult it is to stand and be counted, and how much flak they get, and not just on Twitter – which you can avoid by simply not looking at it. I also realize that the way things have gone, to get put into public office in any of those spheres, is very, very difficult if you don’t go along. But on the other hand, I do think that we can take a page from Jordan Peterson’s book, a lesson from that phenomenon, and say there are people out there who are sick and tired, who are waiting for someone to stand up and say, ‘The emperor has no clothes.’ Whoever the emperor is, right? In his case it was universities, but it broadened out to become courts and politicians too.”
To those who found his analysis a grim one, Farrow ended his final lecture with words of hope and encouragement, and some very practical advice, drawn from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:9-21), which concludes: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”