Harper's mortal sins hidden by all the attention to the venial kind

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“Here in Moscow we are more occupied with dinner parties and scandal than with politics...” - Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Roman Catholic doctrine makes a distinction between really bad sins, mortal sins, for which you will go to hell, and the lesser kind, venial sins.

Now I am no Catholic.

In fact, I am pretty vague on my religious self-definition.

On the whole, I find myself to be, shall we say, impatient with formal, organized religion. I don’t relate to the notion of an authority figure standing above his/her congregation and spouting doctrine and dogma.

That's too one-way. My own orientation is more toward open-ended dialogue and debate.

As for belief in a supreme being of some sort -- well that doesn't really work for me either.

I do feel the atheist label is a tad too dogmatic, so I settle for considering myself to be somewhere on the agnostic/skeptic/ (Einsteinian-Spinozist) pantheist spectrum.

But I do, also, call myself a Jew, in part to honour a four thousand year old tradition that has endured through thick and thin (mostly thin).

I don't want that tradition to end with me, and hope I am passing on some sense of being part of it – however reinterpreted -- to my children and grand children.

I also think it would be unseemly, and even cowardly, to deny my own Jewish identity in the face of the terrible price so many of my ancestors paid for persisting in being openly Jewish.

The idea of sin -- still part of our moral thinking

But I also come from Quebec, where Roman Catholic notions still colour the prevailing mentality, even if a declining minority of folks formally participate in religious observances.

I would wager that most brought up in the Church, no matter how far they might have strayed, continue to be at least somewhat under the sway of Catholicism’s concept of sin.

It is a concept that penetrates the moral thinking of even a Jew who attended Protestant schools in Quebec in the 1950s. (Back then, for the purposes of the Quebec education system, Jews were legally defined as Protestants. I think I can still remember the words to every Quebec Jewish kid's favourite Protestant hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers," though I never understood how folks could go "marching as to war" under the banner of the "prince of peace").

For those not entirely familiar with sin as defined by the Church of Rome, here's how Catholicism for Dummies explains it.

Mortal sins, the guidebook explains "imperil your soul."

Venial sins are "less serious breaches of God's law."

The Church apparently believes that "if you commit a mortal sin, you forfeit heaven and opt for hell" -- and here's the important part -- "by your own free will and actions."

For a sin to be mortal, the act -- such as, say, murder -- must be "intrinsically evil."

The person who sins mortally "must know that what they're doing or planning to do is evil."

And the sinner "must freely choose to commit the act or plan to do it."

The Dummies guide then concludes, ominously: "A mortal sin is the complete turning away from God and embracing something else in place ... Mortal sin is like a malignant tumor or a critical injury that's lethal to the spiritual life."

Venial sins, by contrast, are "minor violations of the moral law, such as giving an obscene gesture to another driver while in traffic."

Politicians and media folk obsessed with venial sins?

There has been a lot of talk in Parliament, this session that just ended, of venial sins.

The politicians and media have been focusing a great deal on acts that are, perhaps, dodgy and greedy, but do not necessarily rise to the level of "intrinsically evil."

A number of those who committed these venial sins would certainly argue that they did not exactly "know what they were doing." Nor, some of them say, did they "freely choose" to commit the acts.

Some of the accusations of sin may not even rise to the venial level.

Whatever our opinion of Justin Trudeau, how could we fault him -- as the Prime Minister's office tried to do -- for taking money for a speaking engagement in Barrie Ontario, two years before becoming a Member of Parliament?

Should we now consider Stephen Harper a sinning villain for having received a salary from the National Citizens' Coalition before becoming Conservative leader?

All this focus on venial sin is not without some merit.

It is helpful to have the curtain pulled back on the machinations of the Prime Minister's Office, for instance, to reveal what seems to be a permanent, nearly paranoid sense of not being entirely legitimate.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a majority governing party behaving as though it is still in opposition.

There is nothing bad about a party that so recently won a majority believing that the media and other notional "elites" are all against them.

Except that sort of angry, resentful mentality can have a dangerous effect on a political movement's psychology.

Politicians and political backroom operators who feel they are on the side of virtue, but that they never get a fair shake from "the system," can easily justify taking shortcuts with the democratic process.

If the dice are loaded against you, well, then, a little bit of voter suppression might be just what you need to do to even the playing field -- to mix a metaphor.

However, arguably, there have been some pretty obvious mortal sins committed since the last election, and those who committed them have not yet been held to account.

The list of what could be considered mortal sins is long

Since 2011, this Conservative government has completely gutted Canada's environmental regulatory system, and did not even allow any kind of serious parliamentary debate on the matter.

To make matters worse, it engaged in an active campaign of harassment of legitimate environmental groups. When Energy Minister Joe Oliver prattled about foreign "billionaire socialists" who fund Canadian environmental organizations wanting to turn Canada "into a giant national park" he sounded vaguely unhinged.

To demonize rather than debate with your opponents looks a lot like a form of McCarthyism.

This government also scrapped the Navigable Waters Law and radically truncated the fisheries law, again without any proper parliamentary process.

The latter was so outrageous all of the living former Progressive Conservative fisheries ministers objected vigorously -- as did even some Conservatives who had arrived in Ottawa, in 1993, as Reformers.

Prior to the 2011 election, when Harper had a minority, the Immigration Minister worked closely with the opposition parties on a package of reforms to Canada's refugee system.

Many of the opposition suggestions made it into the final bill, which passed the House. The Minister said, at the time, that the opposition suggestions had improved the bill.

It is not possible, however, that the Minister was speaking the truth then, because, months after the 2011 election, he chucked that multi-partisan reform and brought in a package of much more draconian measures.

He then doubled down by radically curtailing the refugee health program in an effort to pander to latent xenophobic prejudice in the population.

The government also vastly expanded the temporary foreign worker program, dismissing the complaints of community workers and unions that the system was rife with abuse of human rights.

Only when a CBC story about Canadians losing jobs to foreign workers embarrassed the Harper folks did they act.

There was much more, of course -- including enabling tar sands companies to destroy the lands and waters of First Nations in Northern Alberta, failing to consult with First Nations on laws that affect their rights and treaties, and arbitrarily cutting funding to aboriginal organizations.

Then there was the withdrawal from the Kyoto Accord on climate change, the stifling of science and research, and the sabotage of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

The list is long.

Sins against democracy

Postmedia's Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor just won another journalistic award -- the Michener -- for their reporting on the use of vote suppression in the last election.

But the Harper government is not impressed.

It continues to stonewall the Chief Electoral Officer's attempts both to investigate what happened in 2011. And the Conservatives are almost deaf to the Chief Electoral Officer's efforts to see to it that there are measures in place in time to prevent a recurrence of the sort of abuse that took place in 2011.

So far, there is no smoking gun officially linking the Conservative Party to any voter suppression activities.

But a party that cared about democracy would not be working so hard to prevent a thorough investigation of the facts and, worse, to impede the necessary strengthening of Canada's election laws.

This is a fundamental issue -- all about the state of democracy in Canada.

Are sins against democracy venial or mortal?

You decide.

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