The cross, among other things, is a reminder of Christianity’s relationship with the state. An ancient method of execution with all the charm of the electric chair, crucifixion was a form of capital punishment deemed too degrading for a Roman citizen to endure, fit only for rebels and slaves who needed to be visibly crushed under the imperial heel. Before the cross became a symbol of Christ’s victory, it was first a symbol of the state: its victory, its pride, and its power, as demonstrated in the coerced execution of the Great Victim.
It is easy to forget that this permanent antagonism between the church and the world persists. The rapid spread of Christianity throughout Europe at the twilight of the Roman Empire and its saturation of Western culture during the following centuries makes a rapprochement seem possible. And yet, the Gospel of Christ crucified remains a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks (1 Cor 1:23). The scorn of the Athenians echoes in the laughter of the Enlightenment philosophes; so too, the scandal of the cross is suffered again whenever a preference for the poor, the victim, or the scapegoat is expressed. The Gospel message is always inimical to worldly wisdom for the supreme political principle of every age remains that of Caiphas: it is “better that one man should perish for the people” (John 18:14).
In this larger context that we must place the comments of Laurel Broten, Ontario’s Minister of Education, who, on Oct., 10, in her capacity as Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, held a press conference to express her “disappointment” that, earlier that day, there was another press conference hosted by three pro-life MPPs who wanted “to reopen the debate in Ontario about a women’s right to choose” because they supported a Campaign Life Coalition initiative to defund abortion. Broten then fielded questions from reporters whose outrage at the three MPPs was barely concealed.
When Roman Catholic Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City and Archbishop Terrance Prendergast of Ottawa made similar comments about the necessity of such a debate two years ago, the media erupted with the same contempt. But, paradoxically, it is easier to oppose a crowd than it is to appease one, and Broten’s imitation of her interlocutors’ indignation seemed only to fan the flames. Pressed by the press about her contradictory support for Catholic education and her “adamant” support of abortion, she mentioned Bill 13, the government’s controversial “anti-bullying” law, unprompted by any question. As one reporter asked as a follow-up: “I don’t quite understand why you’re bringing it up.” For Broten, however, the connection was clear: “Bill 13 is about tackling misogyny, taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take”.
In her mind, Bill 13 (The Accepting Schools Act) makes a mainstream Christian social teaching – namely, that prenatal infanticide is an odious and intolerable act of murder – punishable by the state. Since making this revealing comment, Broten’s handlers have “walked back” her remark, stating that it was merely one minister’s public musing. Yet, when a public official in a position of power wonders aloud about the legality of a religion upholding its historic teachings, such remarks have the unmistakable feel of a threat. Henry the Second, after all, needed only to complain about his own troublesome priest, Thomas à Beckett, to have him killed in a cathedral.
Two years ago, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, was asked about the import of the new American health care regime which requires Catholic institutions to violate their beliefs to comply with the law; he was not sanguine about what it portended: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Although, in recent years, there have been horrible examples of the state’s encroachment on religious freedom in Canada, these have been mercifully few; outright persecution still seems (almost) unthinkable. And yet, it took only a few questions from a handful of testy reporters to force a threat from an unctuous politician against her very own church.
“In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Christ’s victory, however, takes the form of defeat; when He conquers the world on the cross, the triumph seems, instead, to be enjoyed by the world and the worldly — by the murderous mob and by cowardly, placating politicians. Yet violence is powerless to change the truth, which always returns from exile, triumphant. The question for politicians like Laurel Broten is this: will you be complicit with persecution? Or will you have the courage to stand up for the religious freedom and the church’s sacred right to speak in defence of the unborn? Pontius Pilate is remembered, down to this day, for good reason.