Catholic Conscience is helping Catholics, particularly newcomers to Canada, prepare for the next federal election. Photo by Michael Swan

Catholic Conscience gets set for federal election

By 
  • April 23, 2021

Right out of the gate, when Pope Francis was elected in 2013, he declared, “A good Catholic meddles in politics.” Eight years on, the young, non-partisan organization Catholic Conscience is ramping up its meddling to encompass all of Canada.

“We’re preparing for the scenario where there is a (federal) election this year,” Catholic Conscience executive director Brendan Steven told The Catholic Register.

It would be the second national vote for Catholic Conscience, but the first where it tried to help Catholics beyond the Greater Toronto Area think through their vote. Steven is making sure the organization is ready by updating its website, launching a two-day series of webinars for political candidates and policy leaders and beefing up its outreach to new Canadians in the pews.

“We think about politics as a very competitive, adversarial sort of system. But ideally it’s a forum where different perspectives, different interests come together and synthesize new approaches with the truth that they bring to those conversations,” Steven said.

“Our Church, especially in the next election, will be saying, ‘How do we bring Canadians — Catholic and non-Catholic — together in thinking deeply, in moral and spiritual ways, about the future of our country.’ ”

Catholic Conscience’s first run at a national election was in 2019, when it staged a typical, pre-COVID event — hundreds of Catholics together in the Toronto Convention Centre to hear candidates from every party answer specific questions about their party’s political commitments. Since then the organization has branched out to stage voter engagement campaigns during recent British Columbia and Saskatchewan provincial votes.

COVID-19 has helped the Toronto-based organization become more national.

“The advantage of COVID is that it has forced us online in a big way,” Steven said. “But also in a way that allows us to reach new audiences.”

Given the huge influence immigration has on Canada’s ever-shifting Catholic population, Steven and his volunteer team is also putting a lot of thought into what first-time voters, new-to-Canada, might be looking for when trying to decide how to cast that first ballot. Translating Catholic Conscience’s platform summaries for every party into languages other than English and French is an emerging priority, Steven said.

“A lot of those political tools are not as easily accessible for folks who are new immigrants,” he said. “A lot of folks coming in are Catholics, often devout Catholics.”

Catholic Conscience wants to be there for them when they’re deciding how to vote — helping them to decide without telling them what to decide.

“Community-based organizations, including faith communities who have relationships of trust in their communities, can play a valuable role in demystifying the voting process and providing non-partisan information to help people make informed decisions,” John Beebe of Ryerson University’s Democratic Engagement Exchange said in an e-mail. “This is particularly important at a moment when social media is spreading misinformation and disinformation.”

But the big change this time out will be Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti. Steven calls it “a watershed moment for our mission.”

Fratelli Tutti is beautiful because it really gives us a vision of the political vocation, where it is just acting out of the love of God and love of neighbour that we experience in our everyday lives,” Steven said. “But it’s lived out in this grander sense, at the political level.”

Pope Francis’ vision of politics as an expression of love stands in stark contrast to the cynicism and suspicion that dominates contemporary political culture, said Regina archdiocesan theologian Brett Salkeld.

Nothing about the cynicism that dismisses politics and politicians as sleazy, self-interested, manipulative and money-driven is likely to produce a functioning democracy, Salkeld points out.

Fratelli Tutti comes from a Pope who is aware of the morally corrosive effects of out-of-control social media use — the ways in which it amplifies mendacity and steamrolls over contemplation — and a culture that seeks competition at every turn.

For Pope Francis, the process of dialogue describes our political struggle for truth.

“The process is the Catholic part,” said Steven. “When we charitably have conversations around politics with one another, then other people have the opportunity to introduce perspective to us that we haven’t considered.”

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