In a new book, John Milloy discusses how Catholicism has become toxic in Canadian politics and how the faithful can re-engage with a pluralistic society.
In a new book, John Milloy discusses how Catholicism has become toxic in Canadian politics and how the faithful can re-engage with a pluralistic society.
“Do you believe that being gay is a sin?”
That question, posed by a reporter to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer just after the 2019 federal election, marked a low point in Canadian political discourse.
“This is what it’s come to,” I thought. Religion, in this case Scheer’s Catholicism, has been reduced to a silly “gotcha” question based on bad theology. Religious faith, something that helps form the identity of millions of Canadians and has a rich history of social justice advocacy, is now a punchline in Canadian politics.
That we have reached a nadir in the religion-politics debate is not surprising. Growing suspicion of the role of faith in Canadian political life has been brewing for some time and came to a head during the 2019 federal election. Scheer is a devout Catholic who appeared to identify with the more conservative elements of the church. Questioning him about his beliefs on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage became an entertaining pastime for both the press and his political adversaries. After the “being gay is a sin” incident, another journalist even tried to rub salt in the wound by asking other party leaders the same question (they all quickly answered in the negative).
It was an easy story to tell. According to Scheer’s critics, Catholicism is all about undermining a woman’s right to choose, with a bit of homophobia thrown in for good measure. Unless Scheer was prepared to distance himself from his faith, he obviously had a secret agenda to foist upon an unsuspecting nation. The idea that his religion could offer anything else to the conversation seemed to have crossed few people’s minds.
Overall, most voters would probably like to forget the 2019 election. Marred by personal attacks, scandals and a lack of policy focus, it was not surprising that the result was a minority government. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has made memories of the campaign fade into the background as we struggled to survive the ravages of the virus and resulting lockdown.
As Canada prepares itself for another federal election, the question of faith and politics is certain to raise its head once again. Its almost exclusive association with abortion and, to a lesser extent, LGBTQ rights, makes someone’s faith an easy target. The Conservative party will undoubtedly feel the brunt of this type of attack for several reasons. Not only do the ranks of its general membership contain a significant number of religiously inspired activists focused on issues related to abortion and sexuality, but its parliamentary caucus contains a number of MPs with strong faith convictions who are unafraid to speak out.
Despite efforts by the party’s new leader, Erin O’Toole, to take a strong pro-choice position and sideline some of the more extreme voices in his ranks, his opponents have never let up in their criticism of social conservatives in his party. It will only get worse as the campaign continues. The war rooms of the opposing parties will spend hours systematically reviewing every single candidate, particularly Roman Catholic or Evangelical ones. Any evidence of a deviation from an absolute pro-choice position or non-mainstream views on other contentious issues will certainly be used to paint the party as “anti-choice,” homophobic and harbouring a secret agenda.
How did religious faith, particularly the Catholic faith, which has been such a source of strength and comfort to so many Canadians, assume such a negative connotation? Why is anyone associated with public life encouraged to keep a major part of their identity separate from their public work? Why has the wisdom of Canada’s faith communities been prevented from even being discussed in the public square? How has the rich faith of denominations like Catholicism been boiled down to abortion and a handful of other issues mainly related to sexuality?
There are many explanations.
Religious literacy in our society is not particularly high. Although millions of Canadians either practise a religion or are open to faith and spirituality, this doesn’t necessarily translate into a detailed understanding of the teachings of many mainline denominations and their history of progressive activism.
Popular media doesn’t help. The idea that the teachings of the Catholic Church are exclusively focused on abortion and sexuality is a convenient narrative that sells itself.
Meanwhile, the good work of numerous Catholics and other people of faith in supporting the poor and marginalized, fighting injustice and caring for our planet receives little attention. Individually, through their faith community or larger faith-based organizations, scores of Canadians are living out their religious calling in concrete ways — welcoming refugees, helping at homeless shelters, supporting seniors, forming partnerships with Indigenous neighbours and the list goes on. Yet little of it gets noticed. This is partly due to the low profile of much of this work, but it is also because it tends not to fit the popular narrative that our church is filled with zealots obsessed with abortion and sex.
Our church leaders need to shoulder some of the blame. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, once an important voice in Canada’s social justice movement, has been increasingly quiet on a whole range of social justice issues over the past few decades. When they have spoken up, it tends to be about life issues and those related to sexuality.
Admittedly, this has not been a good period for the Catholic Church. A series of sexual abuse scandals have rocked the church nationally and internationally. Most recently, horrific news about the discovery of the remains of hundreds of children in the grounds of former residential schools run by the Catholic Church has sent shock waves through the nation. The inability of Church leaders to provide an adequate response to the tragedy and their apparent hesitancy to invite Pope Francis to make an apology on Canadian soil (one of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) has fuelled an outrage that continues to grow.
The last several years have also seen the growth of identity politics in Canada, which many believe is antithetical to religious faith. Many Canadians approach the public square seeing themselves as part of larger group based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other common identifying factor. They see the dominant culture, through its institutions, systems and structures, as a source of oppression and advocate for the dismantling of the status quo and its replacement with a society that is more just.
Although Catholic teaching recognizes systemic oppression and calls on all of us to dismantle sinful structures, many paint Catholicism as part of the problem. They argue that organized religion is a source of oppression, particularly toward women and the LGBTQ communities, and it should have no voice in public policy debates.
All these fears have become symbolized in a few key issues, with abortion usually front and centre. For many, a woman’s right to choose symbolizes what is right with society. It represents a long-fought fight to allow women control of both their own bodies as well as their own futures. They believe it to be non-negotiable. The Catholic Church’s unwavering opposition to abortion has come to symbolize everything that is wrong with mixing faith and politics in Canada.
In short, the Catholic Church, along with several other religious denominations, is not getting along well with society.
For the Catholic Church, there is nothing particularly new about this situation. Tensions between Catholicism and modernity go back thousands of years. Some might point out that the church is a heck of a lot older than any of Canada’s mainline political parties and will undoubtedly outlast them.
Despite this historical reality, there is nothing preordained about our current situation. Vatican II, that great gathering of church leaders in the early 1960s charged with modernizing Catholicism, focused on how a reinvigorated church could engage with the outside world. What emerged, in the words of the American Catholic theologian and legal scholar Cathleen Kaveny, was a “culture of openness.” As Kaveny explains: “Rather than emphasizing what sets the church apart from the broader culture, the culture of openness stresses commonalities.” Such an approach would help usher in a period of co-operation between Catholicism and the outside world, particularly in matters of social justice, that would transcend “religious, cultural and national boundaries.”
Despite this initial optimism, this “culture of openness” began to wane in North America, particularly as society’s values in a whole range of areas, including abortion, began to diverge from the church’s teachings. The election of Pope John Paul II brought a sea change in the church’s approach to modernity. As Kaveny points out, “Pope John Paul II urged the church to defend a ‘culture of life’ against a secularized Western ‘culture of death’ that denied the existence of absolute truth and devalued the vulnerable.”
Kaveny believes there is a better approach. In her work she calls for a culture of engagement between Catholicism and modern culture. A world where faith and our broader society can discuss, discern and learn from each other. A world where the spirit of Vatican II once again emerges, and Catholics make common cause with other elements of our society to address some of our most troubling challenges.
Pope Francis has embraced this spirit. His 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, is about the value of engagement and dialogue between Catholics and the wider world, even those with whom we profoundly disagree.
When it comes to contemporary Canadian politics, is something like a culture of engagement between Catholics and the rest of society possible? Can Catholics find ways to engage in meaningful dialogue with other parts of society? Without abandoning basic Catholic principles, can we learn from each other and change for the better? Can we come together to address the pressing problems of a country struggling with a global pandemic, suffering the dire effects of climate change and facing a host of other existential crises?
My answer to these questions is a resounding “yes!” In my opinion, Catholicism has much to offer our troubled nation that goes beyond sterile debates over hot-button issues. Canadian Catholics, collectively and individually, need to capture the spirit of Vatican II and work with other people of goodwill, religious or not, to transform Canada for the better.
What I see happening in our country scares me. Our nation is in a crisis triggered by the pandemic. Yet Catholics remain on the sidelines, incapable of engaging with a pluralistic society in a way that builds bridges. We seem to have lost the larger message of our faith. It calls for sacrifice, love for our enemy and a whole host of beliefs that challenge our world. It also calls on us to re-imagine our society in a way that puts the poor and the vulnerable on top. Although these may be counter-cultural messages, they have the potential to resonate loudly in a society that is struggling. If only Catholics and non-Catholics alike could realize that it is not just about abortion.
Excerpted with permission from “Faith and Politics in a Polarized World: A Challenge for Catholics,” by John Milloy (Novalis 2021).
Opinion polls show Trudeau’s center-left Liberals are tied with the right-of-center Conservatives led by Erin O’Toole and appear set to fail in their bid to win a parliamentary majority in Monday’s vote.
Trudeau, 49, noted that O’Toole, 48, had praised Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s decision earlier this year to quickly lift public health restrictions in the Western Canadian province.
Kenney, who was a minister in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government before the Liberals took power in 2015, backtracked this week after a surge in COVID-19 cases threatened to overload the provincial healthcare system. Kenney apologized and said he would introduce vaccine passports.
“The choices that leaders make in a crisis matter … just a few days ago Mr. O’Toole was still applauding Mr. Kenney for his management of the pandemic,” Trudeau told reporters in Montreal.
“That’s not the leadership we need in Ottawa to end this pandemic for good,” added Trudeau, who backs mandatory vaccine mandates. The Liberal leader heads a minority government that depends on the opposition to pass legislation.
A central element of Trudeau’s campaign pitch is that Canada needs a leader who is clear on the need for vaccinations to get through the pandemic.
O’Toole has repeatedly sidestepped questions about his earlier support for Kenney’s approach to COVID-19.
“As prime minister, I will work with all premiers, regardless of stripe, to fight against the pandemic,” he told reporters in Saint John, New Brunswick, saying Trudeau should not have triggered an election during a pandemic.
A fourth wave of COVID-19, driven by the Delta variant of the coronavirus, is continuing to surge mainly among the unvaccinated, Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, said in a briefing in Ottawa.
“Hospitalizations could exceed healthcare capacities in impacted areas,” she said.
Alberta and neighboring Saskatchewan have among the worst rates of COVID-19 cases per capita in Canada.
Trudeau said his government would send ventilators to Alberta. Liberal campaign organizers, citing unhappiness with Kenney, say their party could pick up three of Alberta’s 34 federal seats after being shut out in the traditionally right-leaning province.
With Saskatchewan hospitals nearing capacity, Premier Scott Moe imposed a mask requirement for indoor public spaces starting on Friday. By Oct. 1, provincial government employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, and people must be inoculated or test negative to dine in restaurants.
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How to handle COVID-19 has become a challenge for O’Toole. He supports inoculations, but says he prefers rapid testing to detect the virus rather than vaccination mandates.
The Conservatives are at risk of seeing some support leak to the right-wing People’s Party of Canada (PPC), which is feeding into public anger https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/canadas-mad-max-stokes-anti-vax-rage-could-help-trudeau-2021-09-14 over vaccinations and lockdowns.
PPC leader Maxime Bernier, who also was a minister in Harper’s government, attacked Kenney over his vaccine passport announcement. Bernier tweeted that he would go to the province “to join Albertans in their fight against this despot.”
A rolling Nanos Research telephone survey of 1,200 Canadians for CTV on Thursday put public support for the Liberals at 31.9%, the Conservatives at 30.3% and the left-leaning New Democrats at 22.4%.
Such a result could produce deadlock in which no party is able to form even a stable minority government. Trudeau triggered the election two years early, seeking to benefit from his handling of the pandemic, but the Liberals have not so far been able to shrug off voter fatigue.
Trudeau, however, got a big endorsement on Thursday from former U.S. President Barack Obama, who wished his “friend” all the best in the election.
“Justin has been an effective leader and strong voice for democratic values, and I’m proud of the work we did together,” Obama wrote on Twitter.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Writing by David Ljunggren; additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Paul Simao)
The travel patterns of the party leaders make one thing clear: Federal elections are won and lost in the Greater Toronto Area, Quebec and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
To provide a more in-depth look at those key battlegrounds, Nanos Research combined its daily polling data over the past five days to produce larger sample sizes for regional battles. The five days cover Sept. 10 to 14, meaning all surveys were conducted after the Sept. 9 English-language leaders’ debate.
The results show the Liberals are well ahead in the GTA, but are essentially tied with the Conservatives in the rest of the province. For Ontario as a whole, the Liberals hold a 10-point lead with 40 per cent support, followed by the Conservatives at 30 per cent, the NDP at 20 per cent, the People’s Party at 7 per cent and the Greens at 3 per cent. The province-wide numbers are based on a sample size of 588 and have a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
In Quebec, the Liberals are slightly in front at 32 per cent, followed by the Bloc Québécois at 28 per cent, the Conservatives at 18 per cent, the NDP at 15 per cent, the People’s Party at 4 per cent and the Greens at 3 per cent. That is based on a sample size of 447 respondents, with a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
In British Columbia, the Conservatives lead with 30 per cent support, followed by the Liberals at 28 per cent, the NDP at 26 per cent and the Greens and People’s Party tied at 8 per cent. That is based on a sample size of 300 respondents and has a margin of error of 5.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The polling data was collected as part of a daily tracking survey commissioned by The Globe and Mail and CTV News.
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TRUDEAU, O’TOOLE, SINGH CALL FOR APOLOGY OVER BILL 21 ENGLISH DEBATE QUESTION: All three major party leaders are calling for an apology from the consortium of media broadcasters that oversees the federal election debates over a question about Quebec laws during the recent English-language debate.
The question, posed by moderator Shachi Kurl to Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet during the Sept. 9 debate, has set off a firestorm of criticism in Quebec, including a unanimous call from the provincial National Assembly for a formal apology for the “hostile” views expressed “against the Quebec nation.” A report by the Globe and Mail’s election team is here.
CHRÉTIEN APPEARS ON CAMPAIGN TRAIL: Former prime minister Jean Chrétien made an appearance in support of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail, touting the Liberal government’s record as the party looks to gain ground in a competitive electoral race with less than a week to go until election day.
In a speech Tuesday evening to a packed room of about 400 supporters in Brampton, Ont., which is considered a key battleground, Mr. Chrétien spoke of the world being in turmoil and cited such issues as the impacts of climate change. The story by The Globe and Mail’s Kristy Kirkup is here.
TRUDEAU DEFENDS ONTARIO EVENT WITH 400 PEOPLE, SAYS ALL HEALTH GUIDELINES FOLLOWED: Mr. Trudeau is defending holding a packed campaign event in Brampton with 400 people on Tuesday evening, saying the event was in keeping with provincial guidelines despite criticism, including from Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. Kristy Kirkup’s follow-up story is here.
SINGH SAYS CANDIDATES RESIGNING WAS THE ‘RIGHT DECISION’ AFTER ANTISEMITIC TWEETS SURACE: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that the resignations of two NDP candidates was the “right decision” after old Twitter posts recently came to light that were deemed to be antisemitic.
At a campaign stop in Windsor, Ont., on Wednesday morning, Mr. Singh was asked about Sidney Coles and Dan Osborne, two NDP candidates that were running in the ridings of Toronto-St. Paul’s and Nova Scotia’s Cumberland-Colchester, respectively. Both stepped down less than a week before election day, after old Twitter posts from each candidate resurfaced. The story by the Globe and Mail’s Menaka Raman-Wilms is here.
TRUDEAU WARNS PROGRESSIVES TO VOTE LIBERAL TO WARD OFF CONSERVATIVES, AS O’TOOLE COURTS QUEBEC: Mr. Trudeau appeared alongside the former leader of British Columbia’s Green Party on Tuesday to make a final attempt at appealing to progressive voters, arguing that the Liberals are the only party that can stop the Conservatives as election day draws near.
Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole sent a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault in an effort to ease concerns about the Conservative Party’s child-care plan, as the Tory Leader looks to court Quebec voters. Story by the Globe and Mail’s election team is here.
CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATE APOLOGIZES FOR SPREADING COVID VACCINE MISINFORMATION: Manitoba Conservative candidate and incumbent Ted Falk has apologized after he was quoted in a local newspaper making the false claim that people are 13 times more likely to die from the Delta variant if they were double-vaccinated, compared to unvaccinated. The Canadian Press report can be found here.
TRUDEAU SAYS HE PLAYED NO ROLE IN DEAL WITH CHINESE GOVERNMENT PRESS THAT REPUBLISHED HIS MEMOIR: The Conservative Party is asking Canada’s federal ethics watchdog to reveal whether it scrutinized a 2016 deal where a Chinese state-owned publishing house republished Justin Trudeau’s private memoirs under the title The Legend Continues. Meanwhile, Mr. Trudeau distanced himself from the book deal and declined to explicitly say whether the ethics commissioner okayed the China book deal. Story by the Globe and Mail’s Steven Chase and Robert Fife is here.
NEW INFLATION NUMBERS SPILL INTO ELECTION CAMPAIGN: Canadian inflation surged in August at the quickest pace since 2003, jumping 4.1 per cent in August from a year earlier. The Globe and Mail’s Matt Lundy reports on the details here. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who has been raising inflation concerns throughout the campaign, said in a statement that Canada “is experiencing an affordability crisis” and Liberal and NDP policies will make it worse. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suggested the situation is temporary and said his party is offering policies on housing and child care that will help lower costs for Canadians.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet campaigns in Montreal. Longueuil, Châteauguay, Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, Varennes and Mont-Saint-Hilaire.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole made an announcement and held a media availability in Jonquiere, Que., and is scheduled to hold an evening event with supporters in Orford.
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul holds a press conference in Kitchener, Ont., with Mike Schreiner, the leader of the Ontario Green Party, and mainstreets in Kitchener and Toronto.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made an announcement and held a media availability in Halifax.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh spoke to the media in Essex, Ont., and visited supporters in London. He was scheduled to visit supporters in Niagara Centre, Hamilton and Brampton and join a Twitch stream event with YouTuber Ryan Letourneau.
Gary Mason (The Globe and Mail) on Maxime Bernier’s disgraceful election campaign: “Election campaigns are bruising, generally thankless affairs, in which the mood of the candidates is inextricably linked to the proximity of the finish line. That is, unless you have nothing to lose, then you can often enjoy the experience and get more exposure than you ever imagined – or frankly, deserved. Welcome to Mad Max Bernier’s world.”
John Ibbitson (The Globe and Mail) on why the Peoples’ Party of Canada should be represented in Parliament: “If PPC members fail to break through in Parliament, just as Mr. Bernier was unfairly denied representation in the leaders’ debates last week – they will find another way to be heard.”
Eric Reguly (The Globe and Mail) on how Norway’s election thrust climate to the political forefront and may be a taste of elections to come: “The Norwegian election might be a foretaste of elections to come as the planet heats up. The election result – the swing to the left partly propelled by heightened environmental awareness – signaled climate issues are entering the political mainstream, at least in western Europe, and are less divisive than they used to be. Canada is not quite there yet, but give it time. Wealthy Norway has the luxury of knowing that throwing fortunes at reducing emissions won’t hurt the economy, as it might in some other countries. Cries of hypocrisy as the oil revenue continues to fill Norwegian state bank accounts will not disappear any time soon. But give that time, too.”
Erna Paris (Contributor to The Globe and Mail) on why federal leaders’ sycophantic acceptance of Quebec’s Bill 21 is dangerous for all of Canada: “To back such legislation is not only hypocrisy on the part of Canadian leaders, but an affront to the fundamental commitments we espouse in this country. During the debate, it was striking to note that in the same breath as the main party leaders refused to challenge Quebec’s right to discriminate, they simultaneously mouthed their support for the Canadian shibboleths of human rights and equality.”
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