The thrust of the conflict was simple enough. An evangelical Christian university, Trinity Western, nestled a few miles outside of Vancouver, sought to open a law school. To ensure their graduates could practise, the university applied to law societies throughout the country so as to win approval for their degree.
Many societies did approve the program, a few did not. The reason for the denials was chiefly Trinity’s “covenant,” or honour code. I recently read the document. It’s short and an elegant statement of how Christians called to study can together live the spirit of the Gospel. As they put it, allegiance to Christ “shapes an educational community in which members pursue truth and excellence with grace and diligence …”
And herein lies the problem. Trinity is a community, a group formed around common values. Among those values are “honesty, civility, truthfulness, generosity and integrity” and—yes, believe it—the call to reserve sexual intimacy “for marriage,” between a man and a woman. And this some law societies, and now the Supreme Court of Canada, could not abide.
Imagine it. Amidst the vast sea of secular universities in Canada here is one that actively, publicly attempts to offer parents and students a genuinely alternative form of community life to the degrading, all-pervasive, depression-riddled hook-up culture now endemic to most other campuses. Now by a 7-2 vote the court has said no.
Apparently, there is not enough room in Canada’s multicultural tapestry of creeds and colours for chastity. “Diversity,” declared the court, would be damaged.
As I have noted elsewhere, from the point of view of Canadian constitutional jurisprudence the majority ruling is, of course, an embarrassment. Only a few years ago, the court ruled in favour of Trinity on substantively the same issue (in the early 2000s Trinity wanted to open an Education Department).
After a judicially prompted re-definition of marriage (2005), and after a judicially imposed re-definition of murder (2015), the recent ruling does not surprise. Given the court’s trend over the past 20 years, Canadians have every reason to expect similar pronouncements for the next 20 years. How can we best prepare ourselves?
Let me first say what we should not do. We should not look for a singular fix. Culture is complex. Multiple causes shape its various manifestations. And yet ambitious, intelligent young Christians, Jews, and others who care about traditional modes of life do well to consider how best they can serve in the long struggle for cultural renewal that lies ahead.
A few days after the ruling, I had a discussion with just such an ambitious young man. He is a teacher at a local Catholic school, already a leader. He is a father and a husband, helps run one study group for men, and another for his students; he is interested in the philosophy of education and wanted to talk about ways he could equip himself for Catholic leadership in education for the future.
After trying to get a sense of his particular gifts, I encouraged him to think about cultural renewal in the following terms. Grace can, of course, work through any channels; yet there are patterns we can discern. Movements in culture, I suggested, are like the movements of a kite. To get “lift,” by which I meant some adjustment in the culture, you need the combined work of two kinds of forces. You need energy from “above” as well as energy from “below”.
This present ruling exemplifies a pernicious use of influence from “above”. In the early phases of the American civil liberties movement, Martin Luther King Jr. worked to great effect from “below.” In recent years in both Canada and the U.S., strident gains in the pro-life movement have been made chiefly from grassroots efforts working from below.
In Saskatchewan, Premier Brad Wall’s 2017 use of the notwithstanding clause — which effectively overrode a court’s attempt to stamp out Catholic education in the province — was a marvelous display of both types of influence at work; it took a politician of great moral courage to defy the court, but he couldn’t have done it without the thousands of Catholic and non-Catholic moms and dads that he knew were behind him.
The point is, if our culture is to be preserved, both kinds of forces need to contribute. Speaking now chiefly to Canadian Catholics, one of our crucial failures of the last two generations was to trust the good intentions of our ruling classes.
Between 1958 and 1982, for example, we let about 65 percent of our Catholic colleges close or be absorbed by provincial universities. The fall of our institutions was swift. It meant that in the course of a single generation Canada lost much of its capacity to shape leaders who could act “from above”.
We trusted, blithely, that a 20-year-old could be educated in a secular university just as well as in a robustly Catholic one. But of course that has turned out not to be true. Simply, if young people are going to keep the faith, we Catholics need to be able to carve out spaces for intense Christian formation. And Trinity’s loss in court shows how difficult it is in Canada for a religious college even to try.
So, to this ambitious young man, I offered this advice: think strategically. We all must consider well where we can best serve, where our immediate obligations and gifts lie, and then prepare ourselves for that service. If you have a bent for administration, get a master’s degree in education, or better get a minor in philosophy from an authentically Catholic college alongside your education degree and then see where that takes you.
And of course leading “from above” is not the only way to fructify culture. More important is abandoning ourselves to God. Visit a seminary. Spend a week at a holy convent. Have a happy marriage that is open to life. Read an encyclical once a month with your friends. Organize a choir devoted to sacred music in your parish. Host a party on your favourite feast day. Whatever our vocations, over the next 20 years together, we need to learn better how to take hold of this kite.
Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping is vice-president and academic dean of Newman Theological College in Edmonton. His most recent book on education is The Case for Catholic Education. His forthcoming book is The Gift of the Church: How the Catholic Church Transformed the History and Soul of the West. This article was originally published on newmansociety.org.