Cardinal Thomas Collins reminded Catholics of the importance of civil discourse at the election debate hosted by the Archdiocese of Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Brendan Steven: Catholics need to return to centre of political life

By  Brendan Steven
  • November 1, 2019

Canada’s 43rd federal election is over — and for many Canadians it was dismal. It was a campaign of “gotcha” moments fought in the mud and a symptom of the greater rot in Canadian politics: the continued growth of so-called “affective partisanship,” or the tribal hostility felt by partisans of one party against partisans of another.

It’s enough to make a Catholic cry. These are not the politics envisioned in Catholic social teaching. A Catholic vision of politics is one of humility: a culture of encounter and genuine dialogue open to the injustices suffered by others, and of course, a relentless pursuit of the common good. 

“Politics … remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, in as much as it seeks the common good,” says Pope Francis. It can be hard to see the charity in Canadian politics today.

This disconnect — between a Catholic political vision and the Canadian political reality — may be one reason why many Catholics struggle to openly participate in politics through the lens of their faith. Another is that there is no truly Catholic party in Canada in either beliefs or behaviour.

But this is also why Catholics are called to a radical re-engagement in political action. We are needed. Where anger, hatred and dehumanization are found — which seems to be in too much of politics today — is the love of God and neighbour not desperately required? Indeed, according to Church teaching, our participation is required.

“Participation is a duty to be fulfilled consciously by all, with responsibility and with a view to the common good,” according to the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching. 

Pope Francis once said: “What are the necessary pillars for public administration? The dignity of the human person and the common good.” 

These are the pillars Catholics are called to build in public life. 

Transformative Catholic leadership in politics is possible. More than one-third of Canadians identify as Catholic. The Archdiocese of Toronto alone is home to two million Catholics in 57 federal ridings, represented by MPs from across the major parties. 

Yes, these are baptized Catholics, many of whom do not attend church or continue to follow the faith. But Canada’s bountiful immigration policies have led to a generous inflow of Catholics from abroad, with half a million alone entering the country between 2001 and 2011. And Catholic “infrastructure” in Canada — the vast network of churches, dioceses, religious orders and lay organizations — is enormous, touching every corner of the country.

We’re the ball game. We have to start acting like it.

Here are three ways we can make tangible progress:

• Start talking about Catholic social teaching again.

We have all heard homilies about the need for Catholics to live a faith that isn’t quarantined in church pews, but overflows into the rest of our lives. Our lives as citizens, activists and voters must be inspired by our faith. Many Catholics remain largely unaware of our Church’s rich social teaching and the wisdom it provides for political life. We need to evangelize Catholics themselves and talk more about Catholic social teaching in parish life. 

• Build a culture of civic participation from the parish up.

We live in a time of growing lay leadership, but Catholics in the pews still need clear institutional signals from the Church that civic participation is at the core of our call to evangelize the culture. The Archdiocese of Toronto made an enormous leap in the right direction with its federal election debate from a Catholic perspective. We must continue to build on this work and offer Catholics clear institutional signals that engaging in active citizenship is a calling of our faith.

• Embrace a shared, Catholic vision.

Catholics are among the most politically diverse of Canada’s communities. But no matter which party individual Catholics support or participate in, we should collectively form a “party of dignity.” Not a separate party but a group of Catholic voices in all the major parties. A multipartisan faction of Christian personalists — Catholic Liberals, Catholic Conservatives, Catholic New Democrats and so on — working towards a shared vision of politics rooted in solidarity and subsidiarity, the common good and a Catholic understanding of human dignity. 

These are small steps towards a great vision — Catholic social teaching at the heart of Canadian public life. Today, this dream seems grandiose. But with God’s grace it will not be. It will be part of the fulfilment of our Gospel call to evangelize the culture through our actions in the world.

(Steven is a director at Catholic Conscience, a Catholic Canadian civic and voter engagement organization. He can be reached at brendan@catholicconscience.org)

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