John Turner congratulates Sr. Bernadette Gautreau, who was presented with the St. Joseph Award during the Tastes of Heaven gala in 2011. Michael Swan

Politics won out over priesthood for John Turner

  • September 25, 2020

If John Turner hadn’t been talked out of it by his boss at the powerful Montreal law firm of Stikeman Elliott, he might have been a priest and not a politician. But he would have been one of those priests who wield power and influence under the genial guise of amusing tales, loyal friendships and long dinners within longer conversations.

Mr. Turner’s reputation as a serious, committed Catholic was founded in the reality of his life, said Dr. Richard Alway, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies president. In the weeks before he died — Canada’s 17th prime minister passed away Sept. 19 at age 91 — Mr. Turner told his friend of more than 40 years that he had methodically read his way through the entire Bible and was starting the whole process again.

“He said, ‘I just find comfort and meaning in it.’ He said, ‘I’m making it a routine with me,’ ” Alway told The Catholic Register.

From his high school days at St. Patrick’s College in Ottawa through his career as an outstanding student athlete at the University of British Columbia (he was just 16 when he entered) through his turn as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University’s Magdalen College and further studies in law at the Sorbonne in Paris, priesthood was on his mind.

It wasn’t until he had begun his career in law that he found his vocation as a layman — a vocation he embraced with gusto.

In 1967 the young minister of consumer affairs was in Toronto for the Theo/Logo conference — a Catholic theological celebration of Canada’s 100th birthday that was also one of the most significant gatherings of Catholic thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

A decade later Alway met Mr. Turner at the annual Michaelmas Conference, a weekend gathering that brought together lay people to discuss issues of the day from a Catholic perspective. 

“These were serious people. A number of people from public life, business leaders, labour leaders, journalists and all that kind of thing,” Alway said. “Turner was sort of deputy head of that group for a number of years.”

In 1979 Mr. Turner and Alway jointly presented a paper to the Michaelmas Conference on the position of the laity in the Church after Vatican II.

Married to Geills Kilgour in 1963, the year after he was first elected to Parliament, Mr. Turner personally taught the catechism to each of the couple’s four children.

He rose quickly through Liberal ranks — young, handsome, elegantly educated, perfectly bilingual. When Pierre Trudeau succeeded Lester Pearson as leader of the Liberal party and prime minister, Mr. Turner took over as justice minister.

The new minister inherited Trudeau’s sweeping reform of the criminal code, which included Trudeau’s promise to “get the state out of the bedrooms of the nation.” Legalizing homosexuality and regularizing abortion propelled Canada into a new, socially liberal era and bitterly divided Canadians, including Catholics. For years afterwards, Turner was attacked for being the Catholic who allowed for legal abortions.

“It hurt him because he took this issue very strongly,” Alway said. “The abortion issue challenged Turner to reconcile his private religious beliefs with his public duty as a politician.”

The law Mr. Turner passed did not, in fact, legalize abortion. It codified the practice that had developed in the wake of a number of court decisions. Turner consulted widely with Catholic lawyers and theologians and found himself comfortably on the side of clear and consistent law.

Mr. Turner’s friendships with Montreal’s Cardinal Paul Emile Leger, Toronto’s Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter and Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic never stumbled over the issue.

When his 79 days as prime minister and six years as leader of the Official Opposition were over, Mr. Turner made his home in Toronto and regularly dedicated his time and energy to Catholic causes. Former Catholic Missions In Canada Magazine editor Patty Rivera recalls how he and restaurateur Biagio Vinci came up with the Tastes of Heaven annual fundraising banquet. He would attend the banquet, hand out the annual award to a dedicated missionary from the north, and then work the crowd to raise more funds.

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