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Reports of faith’s demise are greatly exaggerated

April 24, 2013

With the media frenzy around the recent papal election pushed aside by more violent events, we seemed set to return to our wearily familiar tale of woe about organized religious life in Canada. Our churches are almost empty. The few who remain in the pews are so old, they’ve either fallen asleep or are just committed to keeping the nostalgia society alive. No compos mentis Canadian under 30 believes in anything beyond the evidence-based verities of a wholly secular culture, and would not be caught dead in a house of worship unless dragged there by parents for Great-Aunt Theodora’s funeral. Or so it is said. Curiously, though, a countermanding voice to this embedded narrative comes from no less a figure than our own Governor General, who warns against accepting as gospel the claim that young Canadians want no part of religious faith, and that Canada as a country has turned its back on God. In an interview for the new issue of Convivium magazine, David Johnston identifies himself as a man of deep and long-standing religious faith. “The role of religion has been important in my life and in my family’s life,” Johnston says. “In my search for truth in life, a faith-based answer has been very important to me. I am a person of faith.” The GG’s affirmation came as he represented Canada at the inaugural mass of Pope Francis. He is candid in his conversation with Convivium editor-in-chief Father Raymond J. de Souza that Canada should not deny its historic connection to religious faith. We would be weakened, he says, if we ceased making religious freedom central to our identity among the nations of the world. Historically, Johnston says, the Catholic Church of New France seeded a long Canadian tradition that has shaped us as a pluralistic nation. “Thank heaven that when a European war was fought on Canadian soil midway through the 18th century, in our unique Canadian way, we could find a pluralistic, tolerant solution and permit different traditions to continue in some degree of harmony. That’s the great promise we offer to the 21st century.” The new office of religious freedom within the department of foreign affairs is, he says, a harnessing of spiritual power to the pragmatic, diplomatic good of helping resolve fundamental problems across the globe. But it’s from within his own academic history — a student at Harvard, Cambridge and Queens; a dean, principal and president at Western, McGill and Waterloo respectively — that the Governor General most eloquently dismantles myths of faithless campus life. “I think the essential search for meaning in life is at least as present on university campuses today as when I was a student. That presents both a challenge and an opportunity as to how one relates to a younger generation who are looking for a compass for their lives,” he says. His answer to that challenge facing students is: “Be very careful about overthrowing what has made you the person you are, and as you examine new interpretations of truth, recognize that the values that have brought you here and that have made you the person you are, are very precious.” Johnston points out that the search for truth at the heart of religious faith is also “the very essence of the university,” noting the place of “veritas” in the motto of his alma mater, Harvard. “That was the question Pontius Pilate put to Jesus — what is truth? — and certainly Jesus had his own interpretation of truth,” he says. As the research director for a think-tank committed to renewing North American institutions by drawing on 2,000 years of Christian social teaching, I obviously have a bias toward that particular interpretation. Yet research we have done over the years at Cardus shows the inescapable social good that comes from having people of all religious traditions contributing to our common life. In truth, it also reveals with statistical starkness the pressures on organized religious faith in Canada. It’s encouraging to see that the Governor General agrees on the need to keep religious faith alive as a matter of public good in this country, and that he is willing to add his august voice to setting the story straight about its much-exaggerated demise across this land.