Catholic bashing seems to always be fair game

  • June 10, 2010

The recent call by Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast for government to provide aid to pregnant women who want to keep their babies was widely ignored. A week earlier, comments by Ouellet on the issue of abortion provoked a venomous political and media response.

There was nothing startling in either of the remarks, but one was shrugged off and the other drew an unusual degree of vitriol, highlighted by one columnist wishing the cardinal  “a slow and painful death.” It was an extreme comment, but not exceptional in its derision.

In researching 25 years of anti-Catholic media hostility, I’ve been struck by how often Church participation in debates on the moral issues of the day spark such prejudice. The reaction is probably strongest on abortion, but also colours discussions about the re-definition of marriage, euthanasia, faith-based schools and bioethical research. No one minds too much when the Church tells us to help the poor, but statements about when life begins or what is meant by family are often lightning rods. Nor is prime time entertainment immune; while the Church is mostly ignored, script writers know they can always count on the Catholics when they need a tireless charity worker, a backdrop for sacred art and music or a deranged person to bomb an abortion clinic.

In my view, this prejudice is more serious than a few ill-chosen words here and there or an episode of Law and Order. There is a notion that faith has no place in public life. Whenever I speak or write about it I usually only have to look at a few weeks worth of newspapers to find new examples of prejudice.

In the last days of May we had the spectre of some MPs reacting in shock when a few other MPs met in the parliamentary dining room with Msgr. Fred Dolan, head of Opus Dei in Canada. Josee Legault of the Montreal Gazette reported that the meeting was further proof of an ultra-right conspiracy on the part of the Harper government, while NDP MP Pat Martin offered that those Opus Dei guys  “give me the creeps . . . I can’t imagine why a member of Parliament would invite (Opus Dei) for a meeting on Parliament Hill. I certainly wouldn’t attend anything associated with them.”

He’s not the only one whose alarm bells go off when a conservative Catholic group is in town. Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, brought  up Opus Dei in Question Period. He named two Conservative Party volunteers who apparently are members of Opus Dei, noted that “a Conservative” invited Dolan to the dining room and demanded the Prime Minister “admit that his policy is influenced” by such people. As political commentator Ezra Levant points out in his blog, these volunteers weren’t even known for their religion or religious opinions until Duceppe took it upon himself to discuss their private lives in Parliament.

It’s almost impossible to imagine public officials proclaiming that conservative-thinking Muslims or Jews give them  “the creeps,” or that they should not be participating in public life. Any politician that did so would be censured and probably voted out of office next election. But when it is the Catholics, consequences are minimal.

True, it isn’t only Catholics who are targeted in the fear-mongering. I have not read Marci McDonald’s The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, but according to its publicity material the book  “shows that the Canadian Christian right  — infuriated by the legalization of same-sex marriage and the increasing secularization of society  — has been steadily and stealthily building organizations, alliances and contacts that have put them close to the levers of power and put the government of Canada in their debt.”

Given this supposedly  “indebted” government’s clear and public record on its unwillingness to re-visit same-sex marriage and very public commitment to the status quo on abortion within Canada, it seems hard to build a case that the  “Christian right” is winning. Some grant cutbacks have pleased social conservatives, but it’s just as likely that the cuts were motivated by savings, not philosophy. I suspect the author’s real beef is that Christian groups are inclined to speak out, perhaps more than they once did, on the moral touch points of the day. Like many others in the media, McDonald would rather they didn’t.

We don’t tolerate attempts to mock or marginalize other groups, but Catholic-bashing continues to be fair game.

(Joanne McGarry is Executive Director of the  Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.)

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