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The early months of 2011 have witnessed many hundreds of people killed in North Africa and the Middle East because they dared to demand the right to vote in free elections. In Canada, where freedom is taken for granted, this week’s federal election will be snubbed by 40 per cent of eligible voters.

It is a sad statement about the state of our democracy when millions of citizens give voting day the cold shoulder, particularly when so many people in so many countries are giving their lives for the right to cast a ballot. In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, hundreds have been killed this year alone by regimes that refuse to grant citizens the ballot. Canadian troops are in Afghanistan and our fighter planes are supporting Libyan freedom fighters because we believe their struggle to replace oppression with democracy is just. But at home millions of Canadian citizens, many of whom presumably support the Afghan and Libya interventions, treat their own democracy with indifference.

The explanations for that are varied but none offer a good excuse for citizens to shirk their civic duty. Yes, four elections in eight years add up to voter fatigue. A string of minority parliaments has created an atmosphere of hostility in Ottawa that is off-putting to voters. There have been a series of scandals over the past decade, from the Liberals’ ad-scam fiasco to the Conservative’s Bev Oda affair, which have deepened voter cynicism. Attack ads, commonplace among all major parties, debase our democracy and foster harmful polarization in society. Yet, staying home on election day is not the answer.

Catholics in particular are called to actively promote the common good by engaging in the political process. For some, that means participating in public life by standing for elected office. But for most Catholics it means, at minimum, casting a ballot on election day for a candidate who can best represent Christian values in Parliament. Voting is not an option; it is a duty.

Canada’s bishops urge Catholics to carefully discern their choices. They believe a candidate’s views on life issues is a paramount consideration, as well as their position on a broad range of family and social justice matters. And even when there is no obvious choice — for example, when no candidate reflects the Church’s teaching on life — the obligation to vote remains. But it then becomes incumbent on citizens, acting respectfully, to continuously lobby MPs to advocate for a more just and moral society.

In many countries, people are willing to risk death to be able to cast a ballot in an open and free election. Canadians are blessed to have that privilege. We have a civic duty to vote but, also, we owe it to our less-fortunate world brethren to respect their cause by exercising our right on election day.

He is truly risen

By
What actually happened on that first Easter Sunday?

Every Easter, millions of Christians worldwide celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. They rejoice at the Scripture passages that recount the Risen Lord appearing first to Mary Magdalene and later to His disciples. The story is so familiar, so central to our faith, that even casual church-goers can almost recount it by rote. But what really happened that day?

In Pope Benedict’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth — Holy Week: From the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, Christians have been given an Easter present to help them explore that question. The final chapter of Benedict’s book is a profound historical examination of the Resurrection. On the matter of that first Easter, he ponders: What is the Resurrection of Jesus?

Defending faith

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Freedom of religion is enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But merely articulating this noble concept is meaningless without the will to vigourously defend it.

So it is encouraging to see this important issue injected into the election debate through a promise from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that’s been endorsed by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. Pope Benedict XVI calls religious freedom the path to peace and now we find it may even be a  source of harmony between Liberals and Conservatives.

As part of their election platform, the Conservatives have pledged to create an Office of Religious Freedoms that would operate within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. This new office would monitor religious freedom abroad, promote it as a tenet of Canadian foreign policy and support programs and organizations that advance the cause of religious freedom. It would also offer safe haven to persecuted religious minorities through “generous” refugee programs.

Questions still

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Four months ago the Catholic Organization for Development and Peace announced procedural changes to stop donor money going to organizations sympathetic to abortion. Those changes, which came after a bishops' investigation revealed some D&P funds had gone to groups hostile to Church teaching on life issues, seemed to turn the page on a bumpy chapter in D&P's history.

So it's difficult to comprehend last week's unseemly events in Ottawa where Archbishop Terrence Prendergast had to intervene to cancel a D&P initiative because the speaker from Mexico, a priest, runs a human rights organization that is chummy with a pro-abortion group. The archbishop must be wondering how in heaven's name this could have happened. How could D&P, his own staff, fellow bishops and the priest himself, Fr. Luis Arriaga, put the Archbishop in such an awkward position.

Prendergast is one bishop unreservedly on the front line in the anti-abortion crusade, whether it be in his public statements, joining the annual March for Life or, last year as Quebec bishops were noticeably absent, standing with Cardinal Marc Ouellet when Canada's then-primate was under attack for unequivocally defending life. So he would have been rightfully perplexed and perturbed at reports that his archdiocese was welcoming a speaker from a D&P partner agency that is linked to a pro-abortion organization called Right to Decide.

Fulfill our duty

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A sorry trend of modern times is that election campaigning often exposes the ugly side of democracy. As voters, we should stand on guard to prevent that ugliness from overtaking us.

Instead of a busy spring session of Parliament the nation has been dragged into an election campaign that already is typified by anger. Many voters are rightfully peeved to be called to the polls for the fourth time in seven years at a cost of more than $300 million for a five-week exercise that portends the status quo, another Conservative minority. Canadian armed forces are fighting in Afghanistan and Libya and the country faces a lengthy list of social, environmental and economic challenges as it climbs out of the recession.  The times call for strong leadership but instead our MPs, just 29 months after the last election, are out on the hustings and Ottawa is all but deserted.

Piled on top of all that annoyance is exasperation at the schoolyard behaviour of many candidates, particularly the party leaders. The campaign was less than an hour old last week before the honourable members were calling each other liars.  That was followed by the inevitable attack ads that individually offend candidates and collectively degrade our democracy. It’s enough to drive any voter to despair and cynicism.

A sad dispute

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It was a sad day for the pro-life movement when Alberta’s bishops announced a boycott of Edmonton’s March for Life because some participants insist on hoisting placards displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses. It was sad because, while sympathy abounds for the bishops’ concerns, their leadership is essential in this struggle. And sad because their withdrawal underlines a deepening rift that is harming the pro-life movement.

In a letter on behalf of the Alberta bishops, Archbishop Richard Smith said they disapprove of the large images of aborted fetuses that have become increasingly prominent at the annual march. Such images, said Smith, offend the dignity of the aborted baby and can be upsetting to women who had experienced abortion and to children attending the march.

He said the bishops felt compelled to withdraw from the May 12 event when organizers admitted they were powerless to ban graphic imagery. “It is not that they will not do so; they simply can’t because it is beyond their control,” Smith said. ”We want to make it clear that the bishops are not affiliated in any way with such expressions and do not approve of them.”

Pass bill, save lives

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The World Health Organization estimates 15 million people in the developing world need HIV medication but only five million can get it. That leaves 10 million forsaken souls, mostly women and children, denied life-sustaining drugs that abound in rich nations.

So we commend the 172 Members of Parliament who voted in favour of  private member’s Bill C-393 to make cheaper, generic drugs available to the world’s poor. The bill amends the Access to Medicine Regime which launched in 2004 like a fresh breath but ultimately got choked by red tape. The new legislation promises more drugs to more people in less time.

To become law, however, the bill must be passed by the Conservative-dominated Senate, which means the Senate must act immediately because in the event of a spring election the legislation will die. Although the bill could be reborn with a new Parliament, it would begin at the bottom rung of a long legislative ladder with no guarantee of ever reaching the Upper Chamber. Meantime, people are dying.

Words are not enough

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Shahbaz Bhatti predicted his murder. In Ottawa last month, Pakistan’s minister of minorities explained to Jason Kenney that he never married because it would be unfair to leave behind a widow and children. He told our correspondent Deborah Gyapong of death threats and said he was ready to die for his beliefs.

“I was struck by how resigned he was about his expected martyrdom,” Kenney would later say.

Bhatti was ambushed March 2 as he got into his car in Islamabad. A Catholic, he died because he refused to hide beneath a cloak of silence that shrouds Pakistan’s detestable blasphemy laws. He was a man of profound faith, principle and courage who would not be cowed by the religious bigots and zealots who abound in Pakistan.

Taking on secularism

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In a subtle nod to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, some Quebeckers are calling the case of Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay the “Prayer Trial.”

In the Scopes case a small-town Tennessee high school teacher, John Scopes, faced charges of teaching evolution in a trial that pitted church against state and traditionalists against modernists. The trial sparked a local furor and national debate that made international headlines.

Tremblay’s case is unlikely to attain such notoriety but, from the perspective of church vs. state, the two cases do indeed bear some resemblance.

Hope in Egypt

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During the extraordinary days that culminated in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Christians and Muslims set aside religious differences to march together as Egyptian citizens demanding reform.  

Thus the protests that caused Mubarak’s resignation were not so much an Islamic uprising as they were a broad popular revolt that crossed deep religious divides. There were stories from Cairo of Christians forming protective circles around Muslims during Friday prayers, and Muslims reciprocating when, remarkably, Christians prayed in public. Christians held crosses next to Muslims carrying Qurans. Some protesters waved signs that had the Christian cross mingling with the Muslim crescent in a unified symbol. When the radical Muslim Brotherhood shouted “Allah Akbar!” they were drowned out by chants of “Muslim, Christian. . .  we’re all Egyptian.”

The wrong choice

By
The Monsignor Feeney Foundation of London, Ont., is one of those unsung organizations that operates in relative obscurity doing good work on behalf of the Catholic community. Its web site says the foundation has raised $4 million since 1983 for a long list of mostly educational causes.

So it’s a shame that, for most of us, our introduction to this worthy organization comes after its directors took a significant misstep and then declined to acknowledge their error, let alone offer to fix it.

At issue is contracting Stephen Lewis to headline a fund-raising event — “An evening with Stephen Lewis!” — at which Lewis, according to organizers, was to speak about poverty, children and education.