Trudeau's winding faith journey

By  Joseph Sinasac, CR Publisher and Editor
  • October 30, 2006

 Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Vol. 1, 1919-1968, by John English (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 568 pages, $26.37 hardcover at

Pierre Elliott Trudeau is an iconic figure in Canadian life, a symbol of some of the nation’s greatest cultural divides. For his admirers — and they are legion — he is the father of the Charter of Rights and the Just Society, the totem of modern liberalism. For his detractors — and they, too, are legion — he was the man who destroyed Canada As We Knew It, and replaced our morally certain 1950s world with hippies, hedonism and socialists.

Less known, though a subject of controversy since his death in 2000, was his deep devotion to the Catholic faith. It was something he held dear — and largely kept private — throughout his life, even during his years as prime minister from 1968 to 1984.

John English, one of Canada’s best historians, didn’t set out to fuel the Trudeau and Catholicism fires. His job was to write the definitive, official account of the life of one of Canada’s most famous men. But, as he discovered after sifting through hundreds of private letters written by  and to Trudeau, he could not do justice to the one subject (Trudeau’s life) without dealing with the other (his faith).

What emerges in this first volume — dealing with Trudeau’s early years from his birth in 1919 to becoming leader of the federal Liberal party — is that the politician cannot be divorced from his religion. Even when Trudeau was viciously attacking Quebec priests and bishops, as he did often in the heady political debates of 1950s and ’60s Quebec, he was using the same language, thought categories and basic beliefs as his opponents. The church had shaped him far more than we ever knew, even though he was to later reject some of its basic moral teachings on sexuality.

Trudeau grew up in the ultramontane Catholicism of early 20th-century Quebec. The church and state were two sides of the same coin in the largely francophone province. Trudeau went to Catholic schools, notably College Brebeuf in Montreal, where he was formed in his faith by Jesuit priests/teachers who instilled in him a love of literature and philosophy, not to mention intellectual rigour, and a deep piety. But there was more to his classical Jesuit education than that. The young Trudeau, arguably the brightest student in his class, was exposed to the French Catholic understanding of Quebec history and the church social teachings as expounded in the papal encyclicals of Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum) and Pius XI (Quadragesimo Anno). He also learned about economic and political theories such as corporatism promoted by French intellectuals as a third way between capitalism and communism for structuring society.

Trudeau’s university studies in Montreal (law at the University of Montreal), Harvard, the Ecole libre des science politiques (Paris) and the London School of Economics broadened his intellectual and theological range. He was deeply influenced by the personalist theories of French Catholic philosophers such as Emmanuel Mounier and Jacques Maritain, along with the thought of Cardinal John Henry Newman, at the same time as he studied under the famous British communist intellectual Harold Laski.

What emerged from his long studies and numerous bouts of globetrotting (funded by the wealth left to him by his late father, Charles Trudeau) was a highly educated, erudite, passionate but terribly conflicted young man. His personality — contrarian, arrogant at times, charming and flamboyant — made him a person with incredible leadership potential but also given to dilettantism. At times, he even enraged his closest associates for his seeming fickleness.

The young Trudeau liked to dabble. During the Second World War, he escaped overseas service and rode the Quebec countryside on his Harley Davidson, espousing French nationalism and even participating in anti-Semitic protests. Later he travelled through many countries behind the Iron Curtain and came back defending Communist economics and downplaying their oppression of basic human rights.

Yet even on his travels, he sought out companionship from priests and missionaries. In his studies, he asked permission from the bishop to study texts on the Index of Forbidden Books and his early love affairs were tinged with fervent prayers and tension over the limits placed on intimacy by his church.

In the 1960s, Trudeau became a child of his times, reflecting its more casual attitudes towards sex, fashion and music. Politically, he began to reject the nationalism of his youth and developed a “functional politics” that saw Canadian federalism as the best channel for the development of Quebec’s potential. He railed against the stifling political culture of his province and included the Quebec church on his list of those who, as he saw, kept Quebeckers from maturing politically, culturally and economically.

Through it all, however, he remained a Catholic, if unorthodox at times. His dissent made him the target — quite rightly — of Catholics on both sides of the political spectrum who accused him of promoting a secular agenda, on one hand, and on the other ignoring the church’s preferential option for the poor.

English, having at his disposal Trudeau’s private papers, the Trudeau family’s private archives and unprecedented access to many of his subject’s closest friends, has in this first volume sketched the most comprehensive picture of Trudeau yet published (which is saying much, considering the mountain of books about or by Trudeau). We see in all his ideals, talents, gifts, flaws and faith, a man whose conflicting elements would meld to create one of Canada’s most dominant, if unpredictable, political leaders.


 Trudeau’s intellectual development framed within his faith

John EnglishEditor’s note: John English is a professor of history at the University of Waterloo and author of numerous books on Canadian history, most notably the two-volume biography of Lester Pearson, Shadow of Heaven, 1897-1948, and The Worldly Years, 1942-1972. Below he talks to The Catholic Register about his new book, Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Vol. 1, 1919-1968.

CR: Since the death of Pierre Trudeau in 2000, there has been considerable public and academic debate over the role the Catholic faith played in his life. It was even the subject of an entire conference held at St. Jerome’s University. How did this discussion influence your approach to the book?

English: The discussion definitely influenced the approach by me. . . . I think what surprised everyone was how interested Trudeau was in the Catholic Church, how committed he was to it, how intense he was about the grounds for his beliefs and how this debate persisted throughout his life. As I heard stories from different directions, and they were fragmentary, I became aware that Trudeau’s intellectual development was really framed within the debates within the Catholic Church about the role of the individual and politics, about the role of the church in the world, about the attitude of the church toward social movements, the attitude of the church toward political parties of the left and the right. It was those debates which formed Trudeau’s establishment of his own intellectual foundations. I think it was a revelation to me and a revelation to a lot of people. I know some individuals who knew him later said this was all garbage: that “he never said this to me.” That testifies to me that Trudeau was an intensely private man and he tended to keep these matters to himself. It is interesting that people who knew him well were totally unaware of this.

CR: In his participation in public debate in the 1950s and 1960s, the church was sometimes the subject of his attacks. Was he rejecting his beliefs or attacking the institution of the church as it was in Quebec?

English: He came to believe, as a product of his understanding of Quebec, that the church had been too dominant, a retrograde force in the 20th century. . . . He came to the conclusion that the church, in a multicultural society, should withdraw from the political arena. So a person of faith, whether Catholic or Jew or whatever, had a right to an equal voice, and that was different than in Quebec prior to 1960. Obviously in his private capacity he continued to be a believer, and found a position within one or more of the various streams that represent Roman Catholicism. But he thought questions of faith had potential dangers when they injected themselves into the political system. 

CR: Was Trudeau just a part of his times or was he very much someone who changed the very nature of Canadian society?

English: I was talking about this very question with my students the other day. Their view was that he indeed changed things. What did he change? Official bilingualism would not have developed the way it did without him. Looking back, sure they’re not learning to speak French in Edmonton that much, but by God Ottawa is a very different city. Now we have a Liberal leadership campaign where it is assumed that not only do you speak French, but you speak it very well. Gerard Kennedy’s French is not impossible, it’s just not deemed to be perfect, but it’s far better than that of any English Canadian prime minister until Joe Clark. Related to the role of Quebec in Confederation, my own view is that without him we would have lost the 1980 referendum. . . . On other questions, when you talk about the omnibus bill (of 1967, introduced by Trudeau when he was justice minister), on divorce, abortion and homosexuality, those issues were common to Western society at the time. If he hadn’t done it, the courts would have started doing it anyway and public opinion had an effect there.


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