The election of Andrew Scheer as the Conservative Party of Canada's leader May 28, and Jason Kenney's leadership in Alberta to unite the conservatives, might hint at the rise of Catholic influence in Canadian politics, writes Peter Stockland. Photo by Jake Wright

Comment: Catholic influence on Canadian political horizon

  • June 1, 2017

Allowing for caveats, Canada could find itself with a trinity of powerful Catholic leaders in coming months.

The May 28 selection of Andrew Scheer to lead the federal Conservative party could be complemented in October by election of Jason Kenney to the leadership of newly united Alberta provincial conservatives. The pair of Tories could find themselves pitted against, but also needing to find accommodation with, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with whom they share membership in the Church.

Proviso number one, of course, is Kenney actually winning the top job in Alberta’s reunion of the old Progressive Conservative party and the breakaway Wildrose Party. Far from being a certainty, leadership rival Brian Jean seems set to give Kenney the fight of his political life.

The second qualifier is the definition of what constitutes a public Catholic. That debate stretches back to the early 1960s when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic U.S. president. His conduct led to the coinage “Kennedy Catholic” to describe elected officials who profess the faith yet contradict it while in office.

There are those who insist — fairly or unfairly — that Trudeau is the quintessential “Kennedy Catholic” given that his political support for abortion is so fervent he has banned pro-lifers as candidates for the Liberals. While the Prime Minister expresses no hesitation about the staunchness of his own Catholicism, others see large ambiguity. Indeed, his publicized reception of communion from Archbishop Christian Lepine at a Mass celebrating Montreal’s 375th anniversary touched off furious debate about whether he was even entitled to receive the sacrament.

No such doubt ever surrounded Kenney as one of the most high-profile cabinet ministers in Stephen Harper’s government, nor at any time in his political career. On the contrary, Kenney was boisterously joyful in his obedient Catholic identity and in having cut his political teeth during the 1990s working for the pro-life movement while attending a Jesuit university in San Francisco.

Scheer has always been more subdued, though by no means ever shy, about his fidelity to Rome. As Speaker of the House of Commons, a post he was elected to at the tender age of 32, he founded a chapter of the St. Thomas More Society on Parliament Hill to encourage convivial discussion about faith and public policy. He was scrupulously sensitive not to let his Catholicism become an obstacle to his oversight of the Commons. Yet he was equally a strong advocate of making faith a central element in the Canadian public conversation.

“I absolutely think that each Member of Parliament has a different kind of faith — a different level of faith — and it is up to each member to determine how much he or she wants to incorporate that into their public life,” Scheer once told Alan Hustak in an interview for Convivium magazine.

Scheer talked about an upbringing steeped in the Catholic faith and made clear nothing in public life will cause him to suppress it.

“Faith is an important part of my life. (It) can be important for public policy for those who wish to express it and have it as a source of direction and motivation for their work. It is important for us to have public policy discussions in an environment where a person’s faith is welcomed,” he said.

At the same time, he said openly during the leadership campaign that he will not revisit the abortion or same-sex marriage debates, much to the chagrin of at least one major pro-life group that unsuccessfully urged its members to vote for candidates other than Scheer.

Does that set him up for the “Kennedy Catholic” sobriquet alongside Trudeau? Such hardly seems credible. More likely is that he, possibly in federal-provincial tandem with Kenney, will re-establish the posture of the Catholic leader who can remain unwaveringly faithful to the teachings of the Church while taking a gradualist approach based on making them politically palatable to Canadians.

Given that Scheer is not yet 40, a pup compared to the 45-year-old Trudeau and the 49-year-old Kenney, he has ample time for any number of caveats he might need.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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