22 September 2003

Liberal "tolerance" and local particularities

This item is from Mark Cameron by way of Gregory Daly:

[The] European Parliament wants to remove Mount Athos' special religious status to force the monks to allow women onto their island enclave. This reminds me of a piece some time back in the Telegraph about the European Court of Human Rights forcing the staunchly Calvinistic Outer Hebrides to accept Sunday shopping. Why is it that despite the liberal credo of tolerance and diversity, they can't accept even a few remote island enclaves that want to preserve a lifestyle different from that of London or Brussels? The Greek monks surely will be familiar with the story of their countryman Procrustes, the original Eurocrat.

I find this of interest because Cyprus, which will join the European Union next May, has a monastery, Stavrovouni, with a similar policy of prohibiting female visitors. Will Brussels be after the Cypriots to end what it seems to consider a sexist policy? Will more than a millennium of tradition fall victim to 21st-century Eurocrats?

It seems that Europeans, just as surely as North Americans, have bought into what Mary Ann Glendon has called "rights talk." Indeed, if individual rights are held to trump every other consideration, then perhaps it makes sense that government should step in to put a stop to whatever atavistic customs happen to stand in their way. If, for example, I were to hold that maintaining a celibate clergy is not a good idea or were to favour the ordination of women to all church offices, would I then favour a law mandating the Catholic Church to allow its priests to marry? Might I support an act of parliament requiring all church denominations to open their offices to everyone irrespective of gender?

Absolutely not. These issues properly belong to the churches themselves to sort out. Last year a court in Ontario handed down an injunction which went considerably beyond its own legitimate jurisdiction by claiming to determine what is and is not Catholic moral doctrine. This is a worrisome development, as it could, if allowed to stand, find government bodies interfering in the freedom of religious communities to set their own standards of membership. Perhaps a synagogue would no longer be allowed to "discriminate" against Presbyterians and Sufis when seeking to hire its next rabbi. Maybe the local Lutheran congregation would have to consider Methodists and Theosophists in calling a new pastor. This would seem to be the direction we are heading under the current rights régime. Now the Europeans are getting on board this agenda as well.

Canada's George Parkin Grant argued that liberalism tends to homogenize local cultures, particularly those based on traditions that cannot be justified in liberal terms. Grant believed technology to be intimately connected with this homogenizing force. But this overstates the power of a human formation. The real homogenizing force of liberalism lies in its assumption that every human community must ultimately be reduced to a voluntary association placing no obligations on its members beyond that to which they freely consent. And if that means dispensing with thousand-year-old traditions with deep religious roots, then so be it.

So much for tolerance.

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