St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto has just reopened after five years of renovations. It looks great. Much lighter and airier than when I attended back in the 1980s.
Inevitably, the story in the National Post has drawn comments about spending money on the church building instead of on "food daycare the disadvantaged." "Ever heard of Francis of Assisi?" asks one critic, presumably referring to the Franciscan vow of poverty. "Sure is good they were able to renege on their obligation to residential school survivors so that they could use the money for this instead."
Beauty is worth paying for. Life is a quest, as Plato said, for "the Good, the True, the Beautiful." Those who do not value beauty might as well also not value truth or the moral good. To a Catholic, either is worth dying for; and so worth spending money on instead of daycare. But as I understand it, most of the money spent here was needed because the church, a very old building, erected in 1848, was no longer structurally sound. So the ultimate question is, should you have a church or not? Is religion as important as food or daycare?
Adding "the disadvantaged" here, as our commentator does, is not legitimate. Money spent on a church is money spent on the disadvantaged. If a church has value, it has value for the disadvantaged.
Is religion as important as food or daycare? Jesus himself gave the answer: "man does not live by bread alone." Religion, meaning, beauty, truth, the moral good, and a sense of purpose, is every bit as important, or more so.
Saint Francis would agree. With all his concern for the poor, his priorities, in life, included restoring the chapel of San Damiano,which had fallen into ruin. God himself had told him, "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins." God and Francis knew well what the poor really needed most.
This is especially true in the neighbourhood of St. Michael's. Is there a crying need in downtown Toronto for more charity daycare? I think not. If not needed, daycare ought not to be encouraged; it is not good for children. And who really needs it? Someone who is going off to work, and for a second income. A family pulling in two incomes in Canada is not poor. And is quite possibly sacrificing the welfare of their children for greater material wealth. Ought the rest of us to subsidize this?
So too for any money paid to those who attended residential schools. This is throwing good money after bad. First, the faithful paid for their education, in large part. Now they are to pay for paying for their education. Great sums have been shoveled onto the reserves for generations. It ought to be obvious that money is not going to change anything there.
As to food for the neighbouring poor--there are really only two reason why anyone in Toronto, or in Canada, is without food or homeless. Neither is a lack of money. It is either because they are mentally ill, and so cannot take care of themselves, or because they are addicted to something, and spend their money on it instead of food and shelter. Otherwise, given our social safety net, let alone our prosperous economy, in world or in historic terms, everyone in principle has what they need. Local governments in England have recently started putting up signs warning good-hearted citizens not to give spare change to local beggars. It is more or less certain that it will go on drugs or alcohol, making their real problems worse.
Giving the local poor more money, then, is a bad idea. The better to kill them with, my dear. Giving them food, as Catholic charities regularly do, is a better idea, but in the end, not a solution, It keeps them alive for another day, but does not solve the basic problem. It does not give them what they really need..
The same might be said of many of the "survivors"of the residential schools; of the Indians on reserves. Money is more the problem than the solution. More money is likely to go on more alcohol.
The underlying problem, that manifests iteslf as either addiction or mental illness, is a lack of meaning, a lack of any sense of direction, of values, of reliable truth, in life.
What is the cure for that? What does the Church Street neighbourhood then most need?
A church. A magnificent church. One too grand to be ignored. One open to all.