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Luke Stocking: When it comes to politics, I am Catholic

  • October 25, 2019

I spent the two Sundays before election day handing out small booklets entitled “For Heaven’s Sake, Vote!” to parishioners after Mass. The booklet is a federal election guide published by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Some recipients told me “I am Conservative.” Others told me “I am Liberal,” or “I am a New Democrat.” In other words, the guide was not going to impact their vote. Most, though, just took it with a smile and said nothing.

Upon reflection, I decided that as a Catholic there is no political identity amongst the political parties of Canada worthy of an “I am” statement. I prefer “I vote for” or, if an actual Catholic candidate, “I run for.” Personally, I am not a Liberal, Conservative or New Democrat. The best political “I am” for me is “I am Catholic.” 

The statement “I am Catholic” has been a pretty good predictor for how a person votes at the federal level for much of Canada’s history. For a good part of that history, Catholics voted Liberal. 

In 2011 however, an Angus Reid survey in advance of the election showed more than half the surveyed Catholics intended to vote Conservative. In the book Religion and Canadian Party Politics, the authors argue that: “In recent decades, the aspect of faith-based contention that has most shaped Canada’s various party systems is that driven by social conservatives collaborating across religious boundaries to resist social change.”   

Many social conservative values are consistent with Catholic moral teaching and many social changes require resistance. At the same time, voting authentically as a Catholic in 2019 is “splendidly complicating,” to quote Michael Gerson from The Atlantic. His argument, which I first heard presented by Archbishop Paul-André Durocher at a symposium on Catholic social teaching, is that Catholics have something which evangelical social conservatives do not: “a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection.” 

To quote Gerson, an American evangelical: “In practice, this acts as an ‘if, then’ requirement for Catholics, splendidly complicating their politics: If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which — when it is faithfully applied — cuts across the categories and clichés of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it.” 

Yes, we do have it. Some would describe it as a consistent life ethic, or “seamless garment” (as Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan called it in 1971). Canadian Catholics are just as guilty as Americans when it comes to routinely ignoring it. 

One of my first political memories reflects the struggle to vote according to a consistent life ethic. I was eight years old and I asked my mother how she was going to vote in the 1988 federal election. Abortion was a hot-button issue. She said that she didn’t know what to do. On one hand she wanted to vote Conservative because of their stance on abortion. On the other hand, she felt the other parties were better on other social issues that were also important to her. 

I am always heartened by the various non-partisan guides published by official bodies of the Church during election periods to encourage Catholics to consider Catholic social teaching when making their decision. I find that they take the full breadth of our social teaching into account which of course, is “splendidly complicating” when it comes to casting a ballot on election day.

Now that the election is behind us, I hope Catholics took the time to truly pray and reflect on their decision with the help of such guides. Even if they did not, because we had already decided I am “Conservative” or “Liberal” or “New Democrat” etc., it is not too late. We can still liberate ourselves from the constrictions of such identities in order to more authentically bring our faith to bear on political life. 

We do not simply elect a government and then forget about it until the next election. We can and must continue to engage those we have elected. Politically, it must be enough to simply say, “I am Catholic” — however splendidly complicating that may be. 

(Stocking is Development and Peace Deputy Director of Public Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions.)

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