An abbreviated version of this interview with Michael O’Brien appeared in the August 15, 2004, edition of Our Sunday Visitor. The interviewer is Thomas Szyszkiewicz.
1) The Canadian Parliament recently passed Bill C-250 which amends the federal hate crimes law to include speech against sexual orientation. Some Canadian groups have complained about it, saying even the Bible could be seen as hate literature. What’s wrong with what was passed?
O’Brien: A number of aspects of the new law are profoundly disturbing. For one thing, there already exists in Canadian law abundant protection of human rights, including protection against discrimination on grounds of “sexual orientation.” What is distinctive about the new law is the criminalization of negative criticism of homosexuality as such. While the bill was in formation in Parliament two crucial amendments proposed by the conservative opposition party were defeated. The first was to ensure that religious pastors and teachers would retain full freedom to teach traditional Judeo-Christian view on these matters. The second was an attempt to make a distinction in law between homosexual persons and homosexual activities. The Church does not condemn homosexuals as persons; it condemns sinful activities—activities that are not only an offense against God, but are destructive of the person, as well as society in the long run. In rejecting these two amendments, Parliament simply decreed that henceforth any public criticism of homosexual activity is a hate crime against homosexual persons, punishable by jail sentences.
2) Has there yet been any practical affect to what has been passed?
O’Brien: The ink is still wet on the document, and there has been little time to bring many law suits. For the time being we’re in the eye of the storm, a temporary calm. I think there is a widespread drawing back as journalists, teachers, and pastors ponder their options. At the same time activist homosexual groups are bombarding a number of pro-family, pro-life organizations in this country with mockery and threats, planning strategies (in open forums) for silencing all opposition, warning that those who don’t keep silent on homosexuality will go to court, and to jail. The high level of emotional violence in homosexual activist strategy is at times quite shocking. They seem consumed with hatred and determined to bring about an entire social revolution in their favor.
I should add that during the past two years a number of significant “human rights” law suits have been brought against traditional Christians, litigation that predates the new hate crimes law. The courts generally have sided against the churches and individuals who do not want to cooperate with the “gay agenda.” For example, a printing company that declined to print Toronto’s annual gay pride day literature was sued under the human rights law, fined heavily, and forced to print the material or close their business. A Catholic school was coerced by a court order to admit an openly homosexual teenage boy and his older male lover to the school prom; the court also refused the school board permission to cancel the prom. A daily newspaper that published an advertisement page of Biblical quotes regarding homosexuality was fined. Such incidents are multiplying.
3) Is this another slippery slope issue? How far can this reach in terms of what alleged crimes might be committed or who might be protected by it?
O’Brien: Potentially very far. The law can be used primarily to further intimidate the timid and to punish the outspoken. We now have Thought Crime in Canada, just as Orwell predicted. Few people believe this could be the beginning phases of an Orwellian 1984 or alternatively a softer form of totalitarian government such as Huxley’s Brave New World. But the elements of State-enforced social reconstruction are now in operation. We should also consider the fact that in just over one generation we have been shifted from a society in which homosexual activity was a crime under the then existing law, to a society in which homosexual activity has become a government-protected and fostered activity, while voicing criticism of it has become the crime. I see this as a prime example of the new totalitarianism. Clearly, we have now arrived at a situation in which “some of us are more equal than others”, as Orwell predicted.
In its hate propaganda provisions the law states that in order to be found guilty of an indictable offense, a person must communicate statements in a public place which “incite hatred against an identifiable group” in such a way that there will “likely be a breach of the peace.” The courts have already proven their startling subjectivity on homosexual issues. A breath of protest from a Christian is a hate crime, while aggressive disruption of Christian gatherings by gay militants are often overlooked and go unprosecuted. A whiff of Germany in the early 1930’s is discernible in the atmosphere. Of course, glancing about our streets we do not see any concentration camps or marching jackboots. But will the prisons some day hold Christian inmates whose only crime is speaking the truth? And as for jackboots, activist homosexual groups have behaved like Nazi hooligans of the late1920’s and early 1930’s, for example their recent outrageous behavior at Archbishop Adam Exner’s residence in Vancouver.
Many of the terms in the new law are largely undefined, such as “sexual orientation,” “inciting hatred,” “a likelihood of breach of the peace” and thus there is an ambiguity so broad that one could drive a battleship through it. It will be left to the courts to do the dirty work of interpreting, condemning, and imprisoning. They have already proved themselves quite willing to do so, and the new law offers them added incentives.
4) Some European countries have similar laws. What has happened with those?
O’Brien: They have been used fully and without hesitation to punish traditional Christians for their beliefs. In England, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Spain and other countries, Catholic and Protestant pastors, bishops, and cardinals have been prosecuted under similar hate crimes laws. For example, Cardinal Varela of Madrid is on trial in Spain for preaching against homosexuality in a homily he gave in the Madrid Cathedral on the feast of the Holy Family. (see the Washington Post article, 01/03/04). Reverend Ake Green, the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Sweden, was recently sentenced to one month in prison by a Swedish court for a sermon he preached last year citing Biblical references to homosexuality. Cardinal Gustaaf Joos of Belgium is facing a lawsuit under Belgian discrimination laws for his comments in a magazine regarding the nature of homosexuality and the Catholic Church’s teaching on the subject.
We might do well to recall that Pope John Paul II has warned repeatedly that democracy is not immune from totalitarianism. In his encyclicals Centessimus Annus, Familiaris Consortio, and Evangelium Vitae, for example, as well as in other writings and speeches, he has stated that grave threats to genuine freedom are already at work in the democracies. In The Gospel of Life he says that when “democracy contradicts its own principles, it effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism.” When the right to speak the truth is violated, when the rights and responsibilities of the family and Catholic institutions are invaded by the State, when the suppression of vaguely defined “crimes” becomes a growth industry fostered by mindless legalisms, the human community is “betrayed in its very foundations.” The Holy Father goes on to say that in a nation where some individuals are held to be deserving of defense and others are denied that dignity, “the process leading to the breakdown of a genuinely human co-existence and the disintegration of the State itself has already begun.” (EV n.20) In Centessimus Annus he writes, “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
Perhaps I should point out here that in the Western nations where democracy is being eroded, the worst of the destruction has been brought about, by and large, through “Catholic” politicians, people who are “personally opposed, but….” Where, then, does the slippery slope end? Were there Catholic politicians in Nazi Germany who were “personally opposed” to some of Hitler’s more negative programs in the beginning of his regime, but went along with it for “the good of the people”? Will our leaders find themselves saying one day in the not too distant future, “Well, I’m personally opposed to concentration camps, but….” Of course the camps would not be called by such a repulsive term — you can be sure that a government psychologist would come up with comforting terms like “Social Rehabilitation Center” or “The Tolerance Project”. Far-fetched? Perhaps. But how far-fetched did our present situation appear only one generation ago?
5) In your book, A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind (Ignatius Press, 1998), you have a chapter titled, “Are Christians Intolerant?” in which you raise several interesting points. One of those is that a mother “who fiercely protects her little ones from predators…suffers from a bias against rattlesnakes and wolves” or a doctor “who has seen an epidemic ravage a people…is prejudiced against deadly viruses.” But this is not how the rest of the world views intolerance or even how Christians necessarily view it, is it? Mostly intolerance is seen as an evil thing in which the Christian is judging, not simply the external actions someone takes, but the interior disposition of the mind, heart and soul. How does this image get changed?
O’Brien: The Christian view must always be this: I love the carrier of this Tuberculosis or AIDS virus as a person, but I do not love his virus. I want to protect him as a person but I do not want to protect his virus, for it is his virus that is killing him, and threatens to kill others as well. I will do what is reasonable to help him find healing, if he so wishes, but I will not allow his virus to invade my family, my body, my mind, my children’s education, and if at all possible my government. And I maintain my right to say to him that he is in danger.
Tragically, throughout forty years of massive propaganda from media, especially through the entertainment industry, we have been bombarded with gross caricatures of repressive moralists and vicious “fundamentalists”, while the image of the immoral or amoral hero has been exalted in the name of “freedom.” As a result, people who “love the sinner but hate the sin” are now commonly considered to be dangerous sociopaths while those who promote and protect the deadly virus of sin are considered to be enlightened. We have suffered a cultural revolution of epic proportions (one that is far from over), and most people hardly realize what has happened, nor how grave the consequences will be.
6) For the culture to change requires evangelization, yet I observe two things: 1) Catholics aren’t out evangelizing as we should—we tend to shrink from such a thing, and 2) evangelization is itself considered an act of intolerance since it challenges one’s way of life. In light of such an atmosphere, how does one go about changing the culture?
O’Brien: I think it begins with one’s own interior conversion. Speaking the truth will be effective to the degree that we speak in the spirit of love. Hatred and contempt have no place in the Christian heart, nor in our efforts at evangelization. At the core of one’s being—what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the heart”—we must recognize elements of fear, anger, lack of mercy. Whenever we see these impulses arise within us, we should invoke the extraordinary and specific graces of Christ to dispel them with mercy, so that His presence within us may speak and be made present to others. Genuine mercy never undermines Truth. False compassion, by contrast, usually betrays truth on some level and generates other evils.
With the growth of genuine Love there will be accompanying growth in courage. “Perfect love casts out fear,” Jesus says. Too seldom have we relied on grace. Too long have we relied on strategies and public relations programs, as if the spread of the Gospel were dependent on such devices. In the end this kind of pseudo-knowledge or ersatz “wisdom” will fail us. Indeed it has failed us. It has proven itself practically useless and in fact counterproductive during the recent crises in the Church in America. Now is the time for courage and bold witness. If we do not yet have it within us, we need only ask Our Lord for it. He will give us all that we need. Then, if we respond, things around us will change. Potentially the whole character of the West can change for the better, if Catholic Christians would only become who we are.
7) There is a lot of talk today about the whole political climate and religious involvement in it – even in Canada there have been some bishops who have spoken out on pro-abortion politicians receiving Communion. This kind of “intolerant” talk is taken by the media as a political ploy. How does the Church effectively get her voice heard if it is shut down by simply declaring her to be “intolerant”?
O’Brien: We simply must stop being distracted and intimidated by media polemics and name-calling. It so often infects us with compromise, a fear-based approach to evangelization. We must rediscover confidence in the living Jesus and the full power of the Holy Spirit, exactly what Christ always calls us to be. As I grow older, having raised six children, I’ve learned a few things about fathering. It has been a long trial and error process, and perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned along the way is the crucial connection between human fatherhood and spiritual fatherhood, and through this the connection to our Father in Heaven. Whenever we opt for a superficial “democratic” model in the life of the Church or the family, something basic to human nature (and to society) is lost. Such a model of family or “church” may seem compassionate in the short run, but it almost always fosters a long range cruelty. Fathers, especially shepherds of flocks of the Lord, must exercise their authority in love. In love, yes, but with firmness and clarity. The time for nuanced policy statements is over. The time for lack of consequences is over. The time for courageous witness to Christ is long overdue. This means that all those who have responsibility for other souls must become “signs of contradiction” in opposition to the spirit of this age, because its culture is devouring human lives and societies at an unprecedented rate.
8) What has been the reaction of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops? Is there any danger of the Church getting in trouble with the Canadian authorities based on this new law?
O’Brien: Before the law was passed in Parliament, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops departed from its customary qualified and careful statements to our government, and issued forthright warnings about the dangers of the new hate crimes law. Their words had little or no effect. I suspect that legislators had simply grown comfortable with regular mild-mannered position statements from the CCCB, and were well accustomed to ignoring them. There is a hard lesson to be learned here. The “tolerance” of clearly evil legislation displayed by ecclesial bureaucracy is now showing its bad fruits. In fearing to offend, they have failed to resist a terrible offense against the human community. By seeking to save some things they have brought us closer to losing everything. The large majority of Catholics in this country remain uncatechized, unevangelized, and in dissent from the teachings of the Church. Decade after decade they vote for politicians who promote clearly evil laws, often in ignorance, and usually without suffering any discernible consequences. What is the cause of this ignorance?
It should be noted that courageous bishops and pastors have not been lacking among us. Since the nineteen sixties, a small minority of bishops have fought a relentless battle for truth, in a spirit of love. The good news is that there are more and more shepherds like them. In increasing numbers they are standing up and speaking as “signs of contradiction” to the culture of death. I expect that some of them may be in prison one day, as is the case in some countries.
9) How are the smaller Protestant churches dealing with this?
O’Brien: Much the same as we Catholics are. The evangelical churches especially have been concerted in their resistance to a number of government violations of moral law. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, for example, has been a strong voice of protest in the debates over several questionable new laws.
10) What would happen if a bishop or priest from outside of Canada were to say something to violate that law?
O’Brien: It’s only my guess, but at the least he would be conducted to the border and told never to return, and his Canadian hosts could be charged under the new laws.
11) Is there any chance, with the elections that recently occurred that this law will be overturned?
O’Brien: Short of divine intervention, none. In last month’s national election the country returned the government to power for five more years, albeit with a few less seats. Our population is more than 50% baptized Catholic. Almost all of the past seven Prime Ministers and their Ministers of Justice have been “practicing Catholics”. Personally opposed, but…. It is our present Prime Minister, apparently a practicing Catholic, who ensured the passage of the hate crimes law, against widespread popular protest. Why, then, did his party win the election? Because Canadians almost always vote for security and comfort over principle. They have failed to understand that when the moral foundations of a nation are destroyed, great evils are to follow, and in the end there will be no security of any kind. I pray that Americans learn from our mistakes.
12) What hope, short of the Lord’s return, do you see for changing Western culture?
O’Brien: Immense hope. God is full of surprises. It is not unthinkable that a great grace, a great illumination of conscience, is coming for the world. It has happened before. New saints may arise among us, and new movements that will call us back to a vital, dynamic faith. We should never retreat into a ghetto, never despair of the world. But neither should we be lulled into a false peace with the evil that is at work in it. Catholics can be neither facile optimists nor gloomy pessimists. We are called by Christ to a kind of Christian realism, which means that we must always keep before the eyes of the heart the ultimate victory of the Lord. Each of us must play his part in this, carrying the cross of present trials with the Resurrection in our eyes.