The spirituality of politics

  • September 18, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - Guidance for participation in Canadian political life can be found in the church’s social teachings, but that doesn’t mean there is a simple formula for voting, according to Catholic observers interviewed by The Catholic Register in advance of the Oct. 14 federal election.

“We do not believe people are just individuals. We really are about working for the common good,” explains Ottawa-based Jesuit Father William Ryan. “That’s the basic premise. We’re social beings. . . . We believe that you’re social by nature, and for that reason you’re political.”
While the basic premise doesn't translate into a Liberal, Conservative or NDP vote, it also doesn't translate into sitting at home while other people take responsibility for making political choices.

"I have noticed this pessimism about getting involved in politics about many Catholics," Opus Dei Father Eric Nicolai wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. "The spirit of Opus Dei does encourage us not to be resigned to living on the sidelines or sheepishly cowering in a corner. We feel ourselves to be as much citizens as anyone else, with a deep interest in contributing to the authentic common good."

Where Canada's bishops stand

Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

Canada's Catholic bishops have released a four-page Federal Election 2008 Guide on their web site. The bishops take on complacency and apathy. "Catholics have an obligation to be interested in politics," they write in the introduction.

In the statement released Sept. 15 by the Episcopal Commission on Social Affairs for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the authors also look askance at popular cynicism about politicians and the political process.

"There is also deep gratitude owed to all who are running for or serving in political office," they write.

The first specific issue the bishops highlight in their guide is "Respect for the life and dignity of the human person." In three paragraphs on the subject, the bishops do not threaten to cut Catholic politicians off at the communion rail for failing to pass laws that limit abortion.

"One of the greatest responsibilities of a Catholic is to love life, respect it and protect it," write the bishops. "The sacredness of the human person is at the heart of the Gospel."

The life issues named in the bishops' election guide include:

  • protection for the human embryo and fetus;

  • defending the most vulnerable and poorest;

  • supporting people with disabilities, the elderly and ill;

  • respecting the life and dignity of those who are dying;

  • protecting people from exploitation in the use of biomedical technologies;

  • promoting peace and ending violence;

  • encouraging policies that help people balance family life and work.

The bishops invoke the "preferential option for the poor" by quoting both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

On the war in Afghanistan the bishops ask, "Are the political parties ready to engage in a peace process for Afghanistan?"

The bishops devote three paragraphs to the environment, calling it "a fundamental debate that Canadian society can no longer ignore." The Catholic view on the environment is the long view, say the bishops. "True political wisdom means acting now to obtain long-term results. This is the opposite of pursuing only short-term political interests," the bishops write.

A Catholic can't vote for laws or policies which directly contradict "the fundamental contents of faith and morals." But making political choices may well involve "choosing the lesser evil," they say.

"Tolerating something that is wrong does not make it right. In a complex world, accomplishing good with courage and determination often means taking a round-about route. Doing good sometimes involves having the patience of a martyr."

As far as the bishops are concerned, politics is about much more than voting.

"Informed and responsible citizens engage their political representatives in ongoing public dialogue on pressing social issues," write the bishops.

"This is a sign of a healthy community, for which all its citizens should be striving and insisting. Canadian Catholics should settle for nothing less, if they are to be truly responsible."

To obtain the full text, go to the web site, .

Always careful to be balanced and avoid any hint of dictating a political position, Canada's Catholic bishops have only one clear command emblazoned across the top of their Federal Election 2008 Guide: "Catholics have an obligation to be interested in politics."

The current Catholic fashion for keeping the clergy absolutely neutral in party politics, written into canon law since 1983, was not always the way in Canada. In this election Quebec MP Fr. Raymond Gravel has been forced by authorities in Rome — spurred by complainants in Canada — to choose between maintaining his priesthood or running again for the Bloc Quebecois. But just over a half century ago bishops and priests in Quebec would stand in their pulpits and thunder "Remember tomorrow when you vote that Our Lady's veil is blue and the fires of hell are red," in reference to the official colours of the Conservative and Liberal parties respectively.

The evolution of specifically Catholic involvement in Canadian politics has taken us from the 1890s when Antigonish's Bishop John Cameron would regularly dine with Canada's first Catholic prime minister, Sir John Thompson, to a contemporary political battleground that splits Catholic politicians between those formed by Catholic social justice movements and those who stake their Catholic and political identity on opposition to abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, same-sex marriage and similar issues, said church historian Mark McGowan, principal at the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto.

"I've yet to see a politician make it work where these different things are wedded together," McGowan told The Catholic Register.

In the 1970s and 1980s Catholic priests committed to the Antigonish movement and church social teaching served in Parliament as members of the NDP. Fr. Bob Ogle, who won the Saskatoon East riding in 1979 and 1980, and Fr. Andy Hogan, who represented Cape Breton-East Richmond from 1974 to 1979, found the social teaching of the church best represented in the New Democratic Party.

"The interesting disconnect there was on the ethical issues, where on human reproductive technologies and the life issues they were certainly working at cross purposes — the political party per se and these individuals," said McGowan.

Ogle and Hogan's tradition of aligning Catholic social teaching and social democratic politics continues with Catholic NDP MPs Charlie Angus, and Tony Martin. Angus representing Timmins-James Bay, is a former Catholic New Times columnist and a practising Catholic. Tony Martin of Sault Ste. Marie comes from Irish Catholic working class roots and speaks frequently about social justice and the church.

Liberals also have captured the imaginations of social justice minded Catholics.

"You have people like Warren Allmand in the Liberal Party of the '70s and '80s who said everything he did was as a result of the training he received as an undergraduate at St. Francis Xavier University (in Antigonish, N.S.)," noted McGowan.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin is a church-going Catholic, graduate of St. Michael's College who based his politics on Catholic social teaching, most notably in his commitment to north-south dialogue and debt relief for the Third World — an issue Pope John Paul II frequently spoke about.

"He was probably at his finest when he was in Darfur speaking for the people there," said McGowan. "But at the same time, not a pro-life stance as far as we would consider it in the last election and certainly on same-sex marriage — his government brought that in."

On the right the Conservative Party's Jason Kenney is a graduate of Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Saskatchewan and attended the St. Ignatius Institute at the Jesuit University of San Francisco. While Kenney has been a vociferous opponent of same-sex marriage he also backed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq opposed by Pope John Paul II and Catholic bishops world wide. These days it isn't bishops and local pastors who can prod politicians in a particular direction. As the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops makes clear in its election guide, it's up to the laity to be "involved in the electoral process" — something that neither begins nor ends with casting a vote.

Campaign Life Coalition has been lobbying on abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia since the late 1970s. Since 1997 it has run LifeSite, a pro-life news service on the Internet. With about 100,000 people on its mailing and donor list, CLC encourages Catholics to take politics seriously, but not to allow any party to count on their vote.

CLC president Jim Hughes preaches the essentially local nature of Canadian elections.

"You can only vote for Stephen Harper if you happen to live in his riding. You can vote for the party he represents, but you may be voting for some total scumbag," said Hughes. "We're trying to have the people understand that they are responsible for trying to find out who the individual candidate is and vote accordingly."

Campaign Life tries to gather information about every candidate in every riding and grade their pro-life credentials.

At the Catholic Health Association getting their issues on the agenda is getting harder, said CHA policy analyst James Roche. Writing to parties to ask for their positions on specific issues usually results in a response one or two days before votes are cast — too late to make their answers widely known.

"It's increasingly the case that Catholic positions tend to place us in a kind of minority view on some social issues and some moral issues — that's for sure," said Roche. "That being said, it doesn't mean that there's not a place for that viewpoint to be put out there and shared and discussed."

As for actually influencing the outcome of an election, that would presume that Catholics all agree on a single position and political party, and that they could muster a majority in a significant number of ridings.

Even the mostly conservative Opus Dei movement can't claim political uniformity for its members - nor does it wish to, said the director of the Opus Dei information office in Montreal, Isabelle Saint-Maurice.

"Opus Dei doesn't have a specific orientation. It can be as diverse as the people who see possible solutions in society," she said.

Though Opus Dei has been linked to dictatorships in Spain and Latin America, Britain's Labour government Secretary of State for Transport is Opus Dei supernumerary Ruth Kelly.

For Saint-Marie the ideal Catholic politician is St. Thomas More, who lost his head to Henry VIII in 1535.

"He would have been a supernumerary in Opus Dei," she said. "St. Thomas More had a role, he was in politics, but he had his conscience. He was a Catholic who knew where was the good."

For the mostly leftish Catholic Workers who live at Toronto's Zacchaeus House knowing the good isn't the same thing as a political consensus. Among the six houses that make up Toronto's Catholic Worker movement there are Liberals, NDP supporters and others, said Clayton Johnson.

"We vary. It's not the kind of thing where we all have exactly the same point of view," Johnson said.

The peace movement is important to the Toronto Catholic Workers, but so are life issues including being on the side of the mentally challenged and against the death penalty.

"There's also a North American Catholic history. We came here from Ireland and Italy with immigrant backgrounds and were then second-class citizens for a long time," said Johnson. "Just looking at our own history, sometimes our mentality is that the best we can hope for is that the Tories don't get a majority. It sounds slightly defeatist, even if it's trying to be realistic. It is because of Liberal governments that there is still a strong middle class and opportunities for us."

Politics isn't about trying to find the perfect marriage between social concern and personal morality, said Ryan, the acting director of the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice. It's about the "art of the possible."

"The fact is you have to decide what can be done," Ryan said. "If we ask for society to be perfect, then we're outside politics. So we have to live with the imperfect and try to make it better."

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