WCR Logo

October 22, 2012

The federal government should restore the $1.3 million in funding that it hopes to save by eliminating part-time chaplains from the federal prison system. The most noxious aspect of this particular funding cut is that it will mean an end to almost all non-Christian chaplains who work to meet the spiritual needs of inmates in federal prisons.

In her convoluted defence of this cut, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the cut respects freedom of religion by having Christian chaplains minister to those of other faiths. Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and those of other faiths will legitimately wonder how Christian chaplains, steeped in their own faith, can possibly meet the needs of non-Christians.

Does the government actually believe that faith is a one-size-fits-all feature in which chaplains of one faith can readily transfer their skills to those of other faiths in the same way we expect auto mechanics to work on both Toyotas and Fords?

Christians ought to be as outraged by such an assumption as those who are not Christian.

Chaplains, to be sure, can provide some basic level of counselling to anyone. However, insofar as they are chaplains, they ought to be expected to officiate at religious services and have in-depth knowledge of the sacred writings and traditions of their faith. They also ought to be deeply convinced of the truth of what they are telling inmates. It is hard to fathom that a chaplain can be effective all the while believing that what he or she is saying is at best a partial truth.

Some may argue that government should not fund religious works in prison in any event and that it ought to stop paying for chaplaincy.

However, the prison system should aim at rehabilitation. At the root of rehabilitation is something deeper than behaviour modification — it is a phenomenon known as conversion.

Change the heart and behavioural change will follow. The notion that entrenched behavioural patterns can be altered without a change of heart is to understand the inmate not as a human person, but as an animal lacking in self-determination.

Religion is the most effective means for bringing about real conversion in people’s lives, conversion where moral change follows spiritual change. At a total budget of $6.4 million, the prison chaplaincy system is the most cost effective means of rehabilitation available, something even a hardened humanist ought to realize.

If the government does understand that, then it should also realize that the most likely path to rehabilitation is when chaplains are of the same faith as the people they serve. Cutting back the prison chaplaincy is a clear example of a government budget cut that is penny-wise and pound-foolish.