Conscience Conversation: 2020 – a year in civic evangelization

Brendan: Well Matt, here we are—the end of 2020. The Holy Spirit moves in constantly surprising ways, and in that spirit (pun intended), it is amazing to reflect on how we thought 2020 was going to go versus how it actually went. I think about the process of putting together our strategic plan in late 2019 and early 2020, and thinking we would go about implementing it–not to mention, begin the search for funding to support the Catholic Conscience apostolate. 2020 had different ideas in store.

The pandemic and lockdown completely upended our plans for the year. But in its own way, it provided different avenues for us to go about our mission. For instance: were it not for the lockdown, we wouldn’t have moved events into a webinar format. But we did and had two excellent conversations on serving our neighbours in COVID-19 and serving as a Catholic on boards and committees. At the same time, we took time to bring together the right voices to help plan new programs for 2021–including a candidate formation and training program I’m so excited to launch.

Beyond that, we worked with partners in Saskatchewan and British Columbia to launch the Catholic Action campaign for both those provincial elections. What a leap forward that was for our work ministering to and engaging Catholic voters! And with an extraordinary group of lay leaders and bishops in both those provinces. I’ll leave that one to you, Matt, to describe in more detail.

In the wider world of Catholic civic and political leadership, I would be remiss not to mention the publication of Fratelli tutti. A number of those we work with have described it to me as Catholic Conscience’s mission in the form of an encyclical letter. Reading it, I couldn’t agree more. The Holy Father dedicated a sizeable section of the encyclical to “a better politics”, which we discussed at length with our friends in the Diocese of Saskatoon.

I am still digesting the Pope’s articulation of the idea of political love. Both you and I, Matt, have always taken the Pope’s concept of “politics as one of the highest forms of charity when ordered to the common good” as a real call-to-action in this work. But the way he expanded on this core idea to articulate a principle of political love. In arguing convincingly that those in politics–especially those who call themselves disciples of Christ!–must exercise a tender love for others, he asks bold questions for those whose vocation brings them into the realm of political and civic life: “How much love did I put into my work?” “What did I do for the progress of our people?” “What mark did I leave on the life of society?” “What real bonds did I create?” “What positive forces did I unleash?” “How much social peace did I sow?” “What good did I achieve in the position that was entrusted to me?”

I am left pondering these questions and am excited to continue mining the wisdom and insight Fratelli tutti offers.

In sum, I am so grateful for the ways the Holy Spirit has moved and guided the work of Catholic Conscience since its inception. Though this is only my second year working in this apostolate, I am reminded again and again how critical a ministry of Catholic civic and political leadership is in this moment in the history of our Church and our faith. I pray that the Lord guides us exactly where he wants us to be.

Matt, what are you most grateful for in 2020?

Matt: Thanks, Brendan. For me, the most gratifying and unexpected developments were the really extraordinary responses of our colleagues in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The staffs of the dioceses in Regina and Saskatoon, and the BC Catholic newspaper were truly amazing, providing guidance and suggestions for our platform comparisons and webinars, including especially the interviews they facilitated with five of the six leading parties in Saskatchewan.

And the BC Catholic devoted twelve full pages of their pre-election issue to our platform materials.

Really, it’s marvelous the way the Universal Church can pull together, when we’re focused on the common good.

And of course, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to several individuals and organizations for their very kind words – including Archbishops Bolen of Regina and Miller of Vancouver, and the communications offices in Regina and Saskatoon.

With their help, we were able to provide thousands of people with materials designed to help them make up their own minds, prayerfully and intelligently, in casting their votes. And most of them were between 24 and 35!

Brendan: It’s been a blessed year, Matt. I’m so grateful for the movements of the Holy Spirit in driving this apostolate forward for God’s purposes. I have felt the wind at our sails, despite the strange circumstances of the year. It’s funny: I hadn’t thought of it so vividly as an apostolate until a friend of ours in Saskatchewan used the word. But once I heard it, it felt like the right word. Working with other disciples of Christ, I feel we are playing a small part in evangelizing the culture and building the Kingdom here on Earth. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year, from all of us here at Catholic Conscience!

Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, of counsel to a Toronto law firm, and a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, as well as a lay associate of the Redemptorists.

Brendan Steven is Executive Director of Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, active in Toronto’s Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and other Catholic institutions, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.

CONSCIENCE CONVERSATIONS – Subsidiarity: what is it, and why does it matter?

Matt: Brendan, in one of our recent Facebook postings, you posed an important question relating to that most elusive of all Catholic social teachings, the principle of “subsidiarity”— which the official Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes as being “among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church’s social doctrine.”

The question you posed was, “How does subsidiarity touch our own environmental and economic policies in Canada? What is appropriate action for our federal government, and what is best left to provincial or local governments —or even to our own families?”

Unfortunately, although this is a question of first importance, it is far too frequently ignored, simply because the concept of subsidiarity is not as easily grasped as the other three Permanent Principles of Catholic Social Teaching: life & human dignity, the common good, and solidarity.

I wonder if we could help improve understanding by briefly examining one or two current social initiatives through the lens of solidarity. To start, we’d better ensure we’ve adequately defined it: subsidiarity is the principle that social decisions should always be pushed to the lowest level that they can be responsibly left to.

Properly applied, this makes subsidiarity a critical tool for preserving individual and social freedom —which itself is one of the fundamental values of the Church’s social teaching. The idea is that each of us should retain the maximum responsible amount of control over our own lives, so that we can put the unique gifts God has entrusted to us to work in seeking our own proper paths back to God. Government should not do things for us that can responsibly be left to us to do for ourselves, or left to our families or our communities; to ethical and responsible private initiatives such as business, civil society organizations, the press, schools, or the church; or to more-localized levels of government. As you pointed out in the posting I mentioned, this enables each of us to maximize our opportunities for learning and growth; and helps ensure that policies reflect of the legitimate and particular needs and concerns of local communities, respecting that it is most often these local communities that best understand their needs.

In some ways, subsidiarity helps to shape and inform the principles of solidarity and the common good—for example, by reminding us that while we are unequivocally called to care for those around us, and to consider that anything that hurts our neighbor hurts us as well, there is a wide and critical difference between helping others to realize their own destinies and diminishing their dignity as human beings by doing things for them that they can should do themselves.

One of the most remarkable examples of subsidiarity I’m aware of provided by the Canadian healthcare system. The basic framework for Canadian healthcare is provided by an act of the federal parliament, which requires each of the provinces and territories to assess the requirements and determine how they might best be applied in order to ensure that basic healthcare services are available to its residents. This ensures that basic levels of service are provided, while leaving the provinces and territories significant latitude to fill in the many blanks provided by the legislation in accordance with their own notions of propriety. Thus, healthcare in Ontario is different in some ways than it is in British Columbia, and each of those is different from healthcare as provided in Quebec and Nova Scotia.

It also provides plenty of scope for continuing debate on the proper shape and limits of healthcare in Canada. Are enough important services covered in each province—for example, should important prescription medicines be covered? Would it be better to leave options for provision of some services through private healthcare providers? Would it be appropriate to shift some greater or lesser portion of the burden of healthcare to individual patients, as for example through implementation of modest co-payments, or to alternative forms of care, such as naturopaths? To what degree should these questions be left to the individual provinces and territories? These are interesting questions, with no unambiguously correct answers.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on new questions. For example, several of the provinces, acting out of rightful concern for their citizens and the limited healthcare resources at their disposal, have attempted to restrict traffic coming into their borders. Is that appropriate? If so, to what extent? And can alternatives to inter-provincial travel be provided?

Brendan, what do you think? Are there other examples of social initiative that help to shed light on the elusive meaning of ‘subsidiarity?’

B: I’m glad you’ve raised the topic of subsidiarity Matt, as I think it’s one of the least commonly understood aspects of the Church’s social teaching. Many have an intuitive grasp of the common good—the social conditions which collectively allow all children of God to reach their full and authentic development. Solidarity also makes intuitive sense. Indeed, solidarity seems to connect most naturally and organically with our well-trodden understanding of Catholic social values, so eloquently and simply expressed in the phrase “Love thy neighbour.” Subsidiarity often goes unmentioned. But it is so critical, it could be argued rightly that it is impossible to understand and promote the common good or solidarity without the additional, essential pillar of subsidiarity.

Why is subsidiarity so critical? It stands between the twin monsters of collectivism—the idea that all decision-making should be made by larger aggregations of distant governing bodies—and individualism, the idea that all power should be invested in individuals and that only individual interests should drive societal decision-making. Both lead to terrible social evils, the former because human dignity is trampled underneath the whims of the majoritarian collective, and the latter because no restraint is placed on the totalizing and often corrupted desires of individuals and the harm they can cause to their neighbours. Subsidiarity takes the concept of servant-leadership—that the greatest must be the least and must support those they lead—and applies it to institutions. In this sense, higher levels of governance serve and support the self-directed needs of lower levels of governance, without crushing the initiative, enterprise, and self-determination of those lower levels. In addition to that “vertical” understanding of subsidiarity, there is also a “horizontal” understanding, namely the diffusion of power among differing institutions serving different purposes. This ensures that no one institution can unjustly dominate the others, nor that no one institution takes on responsibilities which it is not capable of properly serving. With this principle, every layer of governance or communal organization is imbued with the powers it is most capable of responsibly undertaking for the dignity of all—from the family, to the town and city, to civil society, to our provincial and federal governments, and all the various institutions in between.

From the perspective of subsidiarity, we’re blessed to live in a country like Canada, where the principles of subsidiarity are constructed right into the architecture of our federation. The Canadian model of government created multiple layers of government—specifically a federal government and multiple provincial governments—each with strictly enunciated powers of governance. Over time, through legal proceedings, these powers have been further clarified, largely to the benefit of the provincial governments. In my opinion we are lucky in Canada to have a government so strictly localized through our constitution. We are a geographically and culturally dispersed nation. Each region has unique needs, values, and aspirations. Such a decentralized federal model allows those regions to pursue their local aspirations while working collectively at the national level on issues of mutual concern.

We still have more work to do on this front. You asked me about a relevant political issue that touches on subsidiarity. Consider the issue of granting further powers to municipal governments and clarifying those powers. Municipalities in Canada are largely so-called “creatures of the provinces,” created by provincial legislation, which can be changed by a simple majority vote of the provincial legislature. Thus, was the case when Ontario Premier Doug Ford reduced the size of Toronto city council by half, right in the middle of a municipal election. Courts eventually ruled that this move didn’t violate the Constitution but it prompted much public discussion: do cities deserve more rights and powers of self-government, protected from the whims of provincial governments, so they can better govern according to the wishes of their citizens?

Like the common good and solidarity, subsidiarity is a bedrock principle that must be accounted for in any Catholic perspective on public policy issues.

M: Just a final observation about New Testament roots for the principle. In a single chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 25), Christ addresses both the individual and social aspects of Christianity in a way that highlights the individual’s responsibility for both himself and his society. At Matthew 25:14-30 Christ explains, through the parable of the talents, that each individual is called to use the gifts God has entrusted to him for God’s purposes—which are to love God and to love one another. And in the very next passage (lines 31-46) he warns that individuals will be judged not only on the basis of our individual actions, but also for our collective activities as members of “nations.”

Likewise, the Apostle Paul stresses both individual and social aspects of responsibility, with emphasis on the duties of the individual. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul stresses the requirement that each conduct himself in an orderly fashion, and to avoid burdening others. “In fact,” he notes, “we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” “But you, brothers,” he continues, “do not be remiss in doing good.” (2 Thess. 3:6-13). And he reiterates that the purpose of life is to seek God, and the purpose of societies is to assist each of their members in doing so. In Acts 17, Paul explains that it is God

who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us…

God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world with justice’ through a man he has appointed… 

CONSCIENCE CONVERSATIONS: The greatest act of solidarity in the history of the world

Brendan: “How many saints have we never heard of?” I remember reading that once, Matt, and I’ve been thinking about it lately as we’ve watched the extraordinary heroism of everyday love which has emerged globally with the COVID-19 pandemic. This ordinary heroism has to me been the defining cultural feature of the crisis, and the one which has given me so much hope even as so much suffering emerges from this virus. Every day we see little acts of heroism that are collectively saving the world: the doctor or nurse who bravely steps into the breach, the children comforted nightly and given strength by parents, the army of volunteers delivering groceries and medicines to those locked inside, the friends reaching out constantly to others living alone or in suffering to give them strength.

The list truly goes on and on. This everyday heroism reminds me of what Pope Francis called the “middle class of holiness” in Gaudium et spes, and it’s worth quoting his observations at length:

The Holy Spirit bestows holiness in abundance among God’s holy and faithful people, for “it has pleased God to make men and women holy and to save them, not as individuals without any bond between them, but rather as a people who might acknowledge him in truth and serve him in holiness”. In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people.

I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them “the middle class of holiness”.

Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity”. We should consider the fact that, as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross suggests, real history is made by so many of them. As she writes: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed”.

This line, in particular, feeds my soul: “A holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.” There is so much cynicism about the moral state of our world and culture. Sin is everywhere, as it has always been. But in this moment of agony I can’t help but see God’s reflection in all those around me and across the country, Christian and irreligious alike. I see it in every kindness and small act of service. And I see how these little actions, compelled by the Holy Spirit, are together moving mountains of holiness in the world. An enormous plurality of humanity is locked indoors together. Is this the greatest single act of solidarity in the history of the world? Billions of people huddled inside, to prevent the transmission of a virus which destroys the life of the most vulnerable among us? I can’t help but see the holiness in that. I can’t help but drink up its implications.

Matt, I would love to hear your thoughts on this great mass of “middle class holiness” we are witnessing and the immense solidarity of this moment.

Matt: Well, Brendan, I don’t think I can improve on what you’ve written.  The best I can hope for to is ratify and perhaps amplify it.

I’m particularly struck by your observation that this is very likely the “greatest single act of solidarity in the history of the world.”  Let’s think about that for a moment—or, preferably, many moments.

For me, the overriding feeling inspired by this time of separation and seclusion—aside from the deeply shared compassion for the millions of people who have so far been affected by the pandemic, and particularly those who have or will fall victim to it—is the hope that the spirit of solidarity and humanity so many of us are feeling now will grow and take root.  And for me that hope borders on certainty: the whole broad history of the world consists in a virtually infinite series of big steps forward and slightly smaller steps backward.

The fact is, some of the improvements being witnessed in social thought and interactions that we are witnessing now will stick and will grow.  Sure, a measure of complacency will return, we will regress from some as-yet undefined point of maximum advance, but we will not regress so far as to return to a state equivalent to that which existed before the pandemic.

My hope is that we will witness that advance in many ways—social as well as personal.  But the spirit of the individuals living on the 30th floor of the building across the street from me—as evidenced by the sign they placed in the windows across their unit—will persist, and grow.

History is a great progression of human love, conceived, inspired, lived, and passed forward by millions and millions of the everyday saints you and Pope Francis are highlighting.   Not in the same way by everyone, but in as many different ways as there are everyday human beings.

Matt, the Pope himself as echoed the very point you are making—the need to preserve this great advance in solidarity, once our moment of crisis passes. In an interview in April he said:

This crisis is affecting us all, rich and poor alike, and putting a spotlight on hypocrisy. I am worried by the hypocrisy of certain political personalities who speak of facing up to the crisis, of the problem of hunger in the world, but who in the meantime manufacture weapons. This is a time to be converted from this kind of functional hypocrisy. It’s a time for integrity. Either we are coherent with our beliefs or we lose everything.

You ask me about conversion. Every crisis contains both danger and opportunity: the opportunity to move out from the danger. Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion.

Yes, I see early signs of an economy that is less liquid, more human. But let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were. This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it. We have lost the contemplative dimension; we have to get it back at this time.

We must begin a time of integrity, as the Pope puts it—we must be coherent with our beliefs or lose everything. And this is where Catholics are called especially. We believe every person is a child of God. How do we live that fundamental truth coherently in our lives and in the life of our country? How do we build that more human economy the Pope points too? How do we bring our economic systems into line with the true reality of the universe, that every human being is imbued with an infinite dignity? We must inch ever closer to building a world where relations among people grow closer to the relations between God and His people.

Consider, for a moment, the idea of “essential workers” in this crisis. People who are most needed in the workplace at this time, to continue moving essential supply chains—like grocery store workers, pharmacy workers, and others—are often among those who are paid the least in our economy. They are among the least secure. They are among those who least enjoy the benefits of our collective prosperity. That lack of integrity and disconnection from truth in our economic life has always been present, but the crisis reveals it in all its naked injustice. How do we change that?

Let’s all work towards that more humane economy, where the memory of solidarity and humanity from this crisis becomes a turning point in our history—and not simply a blip we forget.

Everything you say is true, Brendan.  We need, as both global and local societies, to take the next step toward a time of integrity and just economic and governmental structures.  It’s a challenge that will require our attention and our action for a long period of time.  First, we need to educate ourselves in the injustices faced by so many of our neighbors, now and in the period of recovery that will follow the COVID crisis.  And we must bear in mind the certainty that there will be opportunists looking to profit from this crisis.

But we cannot, and should not, let the opportunists and the self-absorbed daunt us. There will be changes, sure. The Church will lose some people, as they wander away seeking new pleasures—but it will also gain people. And the tough roots of the Church will survive, with healthier branches than ever – branches that will flower into new strength and beauty, growing ever closer toward the vision that God holds for us all—toward the “time acceptable to the Lord.”

Twice a month, Matthew Marquardt and Brendan Steven get together over breakfast (virtually, in the time of COVID-19!) and talk about what it means to be a Christian citizen. These are their Conscience Conversations. Want to join the conversation? Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching, and how you can serve your community as an active Christian citizen? Reach out to us: email

Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, of counsel to a Toronto law firm, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, as well as a lay associate of the Redemptorists.

Brendan Steven is Executive Director of Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, active with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other Catholic and civic institutions, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.

REFLECTION: Seven Social Sins

At Catholic Conscience we like to speak in terms of the principles, values, and virtues of Catholic social thought, since they tend to consist of broad, positive, general exhortations to seek and do good.  The Church has also stressed, however, the important concept of social sin, for times when we have collectively gone too far.  In this time in which every person on earth has been forced to sacrifice and suffer with us through Lent, perhaps it is good to reflect upon sinful aspects of our society.

The Church teaches that social sin includes “every sin against the rights of the human person… and every sin against the physical integrity of the individual; every sin against the freedom of others, especially against the supreme freedom to believe in God and worship him; and every sin against the dignity and honor of one’s neighbor. Every sin against the common good… is also social sin.”

As the world suffers through the horror of a virus our bodies have not yet learned to respond to, and as too many of us continue to put material desires before the health and well being of others and the planet, how are we as a society doing?

The concept of a grouping of seven social sins originated in the 1920s, as a complement to the traditional seven deadly sins of the individual.  The original version, announced in a sermon in England, was adapted by Mohandas Gandhi in the struggle for Indian independence, and later by a Vatican Bishop.  The following listing was created by Catholic Conscience, with reference to the earlier listings and with special reference to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

  1. Politics of fear, hate, or exclusion
  2. Abuse of creation
  3. Society without love
  4. Acquisition or retention of unjust wealth
  5. Commerce or industry without morality
  6. Science without humanity
  7. Perpetuation of ignorance

The First Social Sin:  Politics of Fear, Hate, or Exclusion

Oppression, marginalization, and unjust discrimination in any form are inconsistent with any proper form of government. If the purpose of life is to seek truth, and if that truth is God, then such practices are not only likely to hinder individuals in their search, but they are wholly inconsistent with the exhortations of our Creator, which teach clearly that we are to seek God in one another, and that we are to care for anyone within our reach who needs help.

It would be unjust, for example, for a government to place one class of citizens under restraint, or expose them to unnecessary harm, or ignore them altogether, in order to benefit another group – for example by putting the economic interests of one group above the health of another. In our battle with the new Coronavirus, are we providing guidance and assistance in an even-handed, just form, considering all, or have some of us considered requiring other groups to suffer so that we might maintain our material wealth?

It’s important to remember that we are collectively responsible for the actions of our societies (Matthew 25:31-46), particularly when we live in democracies and decline to participate meaningfully.

Forms of problematic political behavior include:

  1. Government by fear, division, or abuse.
  2. Derogation of conscience rights; interference with free, responsible speech.
  3. Military or police oppression.
  4. The adoption of unjust or non-sustainable social, economic, or legal structures.

The Second Social Sin:  Abuse of Creation.

“Man and woman are created in relationship to others above all as those to whom the lives of others have been entrusted. With this specific vocation to life, man and woman find themselves in the presence of all the other creatures. Their dominion over the world requires the exercise of responsibility, it is not a freedom of arbitrary and selfish exploitation… All of creation in fact has value and is “good” in the sight of God, who is its author. Man must discover and respect its value. This is a marvellous challenge to his intellect, which should lift him up as on wings towards the contemplation of the truth of all God’s creatures… (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, sections 112, 113.) According to the New Testament, all creation, together indeed with all humanity, awaits the Redeemer: subjected to futility, creation reaches out full of hope, with groans and birth pangs, longing to be freed from decay (Compendium section 113).

Our responsibility for all creation extends not only to each of our fellow creatures now, but to all creatures of all generations. In building and maintaining our economies, in our work, in our leisure activities, we cannot escape this responsibility.

As a society, how are we doing? As we make choices each day, and encourage each other in their choices, do we have the good of others – now and in future generations- in mind?

The Third Social Sin:  Cultures of Indifference.

“The opposite of the love of God, of God’s compassion,” Pope Francis has said, “is our indifference: ‘I’m satisfied; I lack nothing. I have everything. I’m assured of my place and this life and the next, since I go to Mass every Sunday. I’m a good Christian.’ But walking down the street, I pass others, who lack shelter, food, proper clothing, and I look the other way so that I not need to see them.”

Too often, as a society, we do the same thing with refugees, the unemployed, the underemployed, the elderly, the young who are struggling to find homes and raise families… the list goes on and on. Recent UN reports have suggested that the world now produces enough to maintain everyone in a comfortable – if not luxurious – lifestyle. As the Pope has put it, “there’s enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

What can we, as voters and engaged citizens, do about it? What are we doing about it? With the Pope, let us pray to the Lord “that He heal humanity, starting with us. May my heart be healed from the sickness of the culture of indifference.”

The Fourth Social Sin:  the Unjust Accumulation of Wealth

“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” – Mahatma Gandhi (often quoted or paraphrased by Pope Francis).

It is certainly true that effort should be rewarded, that the willingness to work hard should be valued more than laziness. In the words of the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, “no Christian, in light of the fact that he belongs to a united and fraternal community, should feel that he has the right not to work and to live at the expense of others (cf. 2 Thes 3:6-12). Rather, all are charged by the Apostle Paul to make it a point of honour to work with their own hands, so as to “be dependent on nobody” (1 Thes 4:12). (Compendium Section 264)

But there are limits. Christians are “called to practise a solidarity which is also material by sharing the fruits of their labour with “those in need” (Eph 4:28)… “Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (Jas 5:4). (Compendium Section 264)

How are we doing as a society?

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals proposed by the United Nations and unanimously adopted by all UN Member states in 2015, observe that “Billions of our citizens continue to live in poverty and are denied a life of dignity. There are rising inequalities within and among countries. There are enormous disparities of opportunity, wealth and power… Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is a major concern… It is also, however, a time of immense opportunity. Significant progress has been made in meeting many development challenges. Within the past generation, hundreds of millions of people have emerged from extreme poverty. Access to education has greatly increased for both boys and girls. The spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies, as does scientific and technological innovation across areas as diverse as medicine and energy.” (see paragraphs 14 and 15)

If the purpose of our lives on earth is to seek truth, and if that truth is God, and if God told us that we are to care for those around us, how do we address the fact that in many parts of the world families live in abstract squalor within miles of immensely affluent homes and activities?

The Fifth Social Sin:  Industry without Conscience. 

“The Church’s social doctrine insists,” the Compendium notes, “on the moral connotations of the economy… The relation between morality and economics is necessary, indeed intrinsic:  economic activity and moral behaviour are intimately joined one to the other…”  (Compendium, sections 330-331)

Pope Francis says it more simply: “economies are meant to serve people,” he points out, rather than the other way around.  He has frequently spoken out against economies of exclusion and the encouragement of a throwaway culture designed to fuel profits at the expense of people, the quality of life, and the environment.  “We have created new idols,” he explains.  “The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose…  The problem, he explains, is the single-minded focus on profits:  “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born…”

The result?  Tragedies like Bhopal and, in Pope Francis’s words, “the reduction of man to a single need: consumption.”  For example, deliberate attempts to addict generations of young people to tobacco smoking.

Happily, there are signs that his message is taking root.  In August of 2019, the Business Roundtable, a US lobby that represents many of America’s largest corporations, revised its decades-old definition of the purpose of a corporation as solely to maximize shareholder return.  Following pressure from civic organizations, the public, and young employees, the group redefined legitimate stakeholders to include customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities in which they exist.

It’s a small step, and the road will be hard:  Business Roundtable’s resolution is not binding, and the urge to maximize profit is very strong.  But it’s a sign of hope.

The Fifth Social Sin includes at least the following:

  • Creation and exploitation of false needs, promotion of unsustainable consumption.
  • Exploitation of workers, or by workers.
  • Interference with dignified work, e.g., unnecessary automation.

The Sixth Social Sin:  Technology without Humanity.

Science and technology have unquestionably brought good things to the world:  wonders have been achieved in medicine, transportation, communication, and security, for example.  But it is also clear that sometimes, in search of power and the satisfaction of greed, we choose to develop technologies in ways that are not primarily intended to improve life on a human scale.  We build machines intended primarily to kill, to control, to make money by putting people out of work or distracting them from things that matter.

Where are the lines?  Airplanes can carry either people or bombs.  How do we tell which one is better for people than the other?  How do we build a world where ploughshares are valued more than swords?

The Seventh Social Sin:  the Perpetuation of Ignorance.

If our first priority in life is to seek the truth so that we can serve God properly, then anything that interferes with that effort raises concerns – and things that are deliberately meant to hinder us could be considered sin.

Many things can hinder the search for truth: the deliberate termination of human life at any time between conception and natural death, for example, along with any means of denying others their dignity or access to the necessities of life. Likewise deliberately attempting to distract others from truth.

Too often our society distracts us, in too many ways – for example:

• By promoting unprincipled education, or acquiescing in it
• By promoting unprincipled or unconscionable entertainment, such as salacious media and opportunities for substance abuse
• By promoting vanity, frivolousness, or self-centeredness
• By manipulating the news for improper purposes, or promoting irresponsible journalism.

Each of us bears not only a responsibility for our own education, but a responsibility for what is passed to others by society in the name of education, news, or entertainment.

“The lamp of the body is your eye. When your eye is sound, then your whole body is filled with light, but when it is bad, then your body is in darkness. Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness.” Luke 11:34-35

CONSCIENCE CONVERSATION: Serving in the “field hospital” with prayer and quiet service

Brendan: I’m writing this on March 28th. I feel the need to say that to contextualize this Conscience Conversation—every day it seems like the COVID-19 crisis is evolving in rapid, new, and terrifying ways. For a reader perusing this at a future date, I wonder how hopelessly out-of-date this conversation might seem. So, here we are on March 28th—more than half one million people around the world are now sick. Thousands have died. And all of us are now huddling at home with our loved ones, praying and waiting out the storm.

There’s so much we could talk about when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic and its relevance for our lives as Catholic citizens. Catholic social teaching, to me, has never felt so relevant. We are called to act in solidarity with the most vulnerable in all things and in all our public policy choices. There’s no greater expression of that principle of solidarity than to barricade ourselves in our homes to ensure others don’t get sick, especially those who are most likely to die from this terrible disease. “Social distancing”—a secular word with such a rich well of catholicity underneath it.

Pope Francis’ pastoral graces always bring comfort in these moments of difficulty. He has an incredible power to use words that produce vivid imagery and help us positively reimagine our role as a Church and as a People of God in the world. In an interview he once described the Church as a field hospital, and the metaphor seems so apt in this moment—a moment of crisis when Christians are most especially called to love and serve others:

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.

Pope Francis has brought this need for nearness and proximity to life in this crisis. A beautiful blessing in this moment has been the fact that Pope Francis is now livestreaming his Santa Marta chapel daily masses in Vatican City. What was once the privilege of a small few—to celebrate Mass daily with the Pope—is now open to the whole world. Then of course there was the extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing, the text of which is an extraordinary call to courage and radical love. And so, in a new and special way, the global Catholic community is together: we are praying together, celebrating Mass together online, creating a oneness in our shared COVID-19 trial. Many of us are also living out our Catholic call to service, each bearing their own cross, many at the cost of their lives—the penultimate Christian witness of Father Giuseppe Berardelli comes to mind, the Italian priest who died from COVID-19 after giving up a ventilator so a younger patient could live. This crisis is in a sense a Lenten observance, one every person on Earth must face. In mid-March the Holy Father called upon the world to pray a rosary together—a shared petition to God to help us in this crisis. The beauty of praying that rosary—a and imagining the many hundreds of thousands of Catholics around the world who prayed it also—was such a comfort in these dark times.

Our faith calls us to action right now. We cannot back away. We need to be the “field hospital” more than ever, when the horde of sick and wounded—literal and spiritual—in the world will grow by so much. So every Catholic must ask: how can I serve in the field hospital?

Matt, how do you think we can serve as the “field hospital” of the COVID-19 crisis here in Canada? How do Catholic citizens step up to serve and support our neighbours in this difficult time and at all times, as our faith calls us to do?

Great point, great quote, great questions, Brendan.  As Cardinal Collins mentioned in his streamed homily on that same March 26, one of the primary effects of the intrusion of real emergencies, like wars, pandemics, and famines into life, is the forced seclusion of large numbers of people along with other radical changes in the rhythms and patterns of our contemporary North American life. This seclusion brings with it the opportunity for reflection:  God has ways of inviting us to step back and reflect on what really matters in this life: The search for that truth which is God, through acceptance and love of neighbor and respect for all God’s laws.

A central tenet of Catholic Conscience is that all Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to do whatever we can in the service of those around us who are in need.  In the current crisis, there are many things Canadians can do—and many of them are not mutually exclusive.  This means that each of us can and should be looking frankly at our own circumstances, to discern what sorts of responses we can fairly offer in order to respond appropriately to the great need that has grown around us. We need to be active in many different ways.

Among my favorite of Pope Francis’s many inspiring thoughts is that while each of us can, should, and indeed must do what we can to influence social responses at all social levels. It is of first importance that each Christian reach out on a personal level to other human beings around us: to work closely enough with our fellows that we begin to take on their very smell.

Now, a disease like COVID-19 is an extremely dangerous thing.  It is important that each of us start by familiarizing ourselves with the disease and responsible steps that we can take to protect ourselves from it. While the Church stresses that others are every bit as important as we are ourselves, we cannot help them if we ourselves become sick.  Worse, in this case social resources currently available for fighting the disease extremely limited: our first duty is to take reasonable steps to avoid becoming sick, so that we do not divert resources or energy away from others who may have greater need—including healthcare and emergency workers.

Once we’ve armed ourselves with the knowledge to respond responsibly, however, we need to bear in mind the parable of the talents and its lesson:  keeping ourselves save and snug and our own hideaways, enjoying our favorite treats, while others outside suffer, is equivalent to burying the master’s coins in the yard rather than investing them. We need to look at ways we can respond:

  • Personally, to the homebound and to others in need.  Are there ways we can check responsibly on those who may physically or emotionally live near us, to ensure they have the food, medicine, and human relationship they need?
  • Spiritually, to all those we can reach.  A number of new social media efforts have sprung up, to enable neighbors to encourage one another not only with kind words, but with joint prayer.  Many daily masses are being offered online. Attend with devotion, and by availing ourselves of opportunities for Spiritual Communion like those taught by St Alphonsus Liguori. These can be of extraordinary help, and arm us spiritually for the work ahead.
  • Institutionally, by investigating opportunities to volunteer with responsible service organizations, such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul.  What sorts of help are they offering and how can we contribute?  With our hands?  With emergency donations?  Can we help such organizations adapt through the contribution of new ideas?

And we cannot lose sight of the many lessons to be learned from this emergency.  Once the immediate needs of those around us have been satisfied, what remains to be done?  The pandemic has cast light on a number of shortcomings in our current socio-economic models.  We have been given an extraordinary opportunity to step back and re-assess many of the ways our society works:

  • Are our economies sufficiently independent?  In our race to maximize opportunities for consumption, we have driven prices to the absolute lowest values they can reach, regardless of consequences for the stability and dignity of work, the security of national populations, and basic issues of fairness?  This suggests that we need to look more closely at putting the principle of subsidiarity to work in new and more appropriate ways.
  • Are our medical and social services networks adequate to the needs we expect them to meet?  Do our economies support production and just distribution of medicines to those most in need?
  • Have we maintained a proper perspective on the importance of the economy, vis-à-vis the life and dignity of human beings?  Are we looking to certain disadvantaged segments of society to bear an undue proportion of the effects of this disease, as well as our own material desires?  Are we placing our own desire for wealth and uninterrupted consumption before the life, safety, and health of our neighbors?

The COVID-19 conversation has both immediate and long-term aspects, each of equal importance.  We must address them all, and not lose sight or sink at any time into complacency, even when we ourselves are safe and comfortable with the status quo.

Brendan: Matt, in the spirit of “working closely with our fellow sheep”, I think I’d like to conclude this Conscience Conversation by highlighting some of the creative ways community groups, parishes and others have responded to this challenge to serve our most vulnerable neighbours and those most affected by the crisis. I hope some of these inspire readers to consider the ways they are called to serve in this moment.

  • Here in Toronto, the University Health Network’s OpenLab is partnering with Toronto Community Housing Corporation to support seniors living in community housing. Many are afraid to go grocery shopping or pick up medication at the pharmacy, for fear of catching the virus—a virus that is more threatening to their lives than other group. This is a group of people who already live with difficulty and economic anxiety under regular circumstances—you can imagine how much more difficult the circumstances have become. UHN OpenLab and TCHC have together started the Friendly Neighbor Hotline–ordinary Torontonians helping vulnerable seniors with simple things like getting groceries, so the latter can stay home and stay safe. Toronto readers can sign up to volunteer by clicking here.
  • Local Society of St. Vincent de Paul conferences continue to serve vulnerable people creatively. In lieu of their usual home visits, many are mailing food vouchers and other supports to those they work with. Consider a donation to the Society’s Greater Toronto Central Council to support their efforts in this time—click here.
  • The Archdiocese of Toronto has shared a list with some of the many creative ways parishes continue to minister spiritually to their congregations. You can read it by clicking here. For instance, one parish is hosting “drive-through confessions” with priests social distancing from cars on sidewalks, and the Newman Centre at University of Toronto is continuing their rosary, bible study, and prayer groups using video conferencing.

This is a time for ordinary heroes, as Pope Francis put it so eloquently in a speech prior to his unprecedented Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27:

“We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial. It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves. In the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: ‘That they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21). How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer. How many are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all. Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons.”

Prayer and quiet service—these are our weapons too, and it’s up to all of us to wield them in the way we are called to help.

Twice a month, Matthew Marquardt and Brendan Steven get together over breakfast (virtually, in the time of COVID-19!) and talk about what it means to be a Christian citizen. These are their Conscience Conversations. Want to join the conversation? Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching, and how you can serve your community as an active Christian citizen? Reach out to us: email

Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, of counsel to a Toronto law firm, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, as well as a lay associate of the Redemptorists.

Brendan Steven is Executive Director of Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, active with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other Catholic and civic institutions, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.

Happy New Year from Catholic Conscience

Happy and Blessed New Year!

To all who have accompanied us on this year’s journey, we write today in heartfelt thanks for an overwhelming 2019.  Really, the input you provided and the success it enabled were beyond reasonable expectation.  Thanks to you, we are ready to launch Catholic Conscience as a year-round effort throughout the election cycle: we are ready to inspire, engage, form, and send Catholics into the world for gentle civic participation on a continuous basis.

Thanks to you,

  • The Archdiocese of Toronto hosted a remarkably successful all-parties meeting for October’s federal election.
  • The Diocese of Saskatoon worked with us to improve our platform summaries, and to share them with dozens of parishes in Saskatchewan.
  • More than 1,000 variations of our Conscience Card platform summaries were downloaded before the election.
  • Through our Catholic Action pilot program for getting out the vote, we collected hundreds of pledge signatures, and distributed more than 2,000 pledge and prayer cards for the election.
  • We provided items to both the Catholic Register and the B.C. Catholic for publication.
  • We were introduced to dozens of candidates, contacts, and organizations interested in bringing the full range of Catholic social teaching to the center of social discourse.

With your prayers, in 2020 we plan to:

  • Initiate new processes for engaging Catholics, and others of good will, in cooperation with more than a dozen partner organizations.
  • Continue forming and sending Catholics, and others of good will, for civic participation by:
    • offering new and updated seminars and on-line materials examining the relationships between civic processes and Catholic social teaching,
    • hosting workshops and round-table discussions of issues of concern for the common good,
    • reaching out to support Catholic candidates for public office, and
    • sharing news and information concerning opportunities, developments, and new initiatives through a regular newsletter,
  • etc., etc.

Want to help?  Write to us, and pray with us, please:

Most Gentle Shepherd, we pray for your guidance as we attempt to gently gather your scattered sheep, and to bring them together for the good of all.  Help us as we attempt to answer your call, so that we might learn to respect all life and all creation, and to assist one another in finding our ways home to you.

We ask this through your most powerful and gentle name.

Want to stay informed?  Watch your e-mail and social media boxes, and reach out to us, anytime!

With prayers of gratitude and hope for the future,

Matthew & Brendan

Conscience Conversations, Pt. 4: Catholicism and Canada’s federal election

Brendan: There’s so much to deconstruct about Canada’s recent federal election, but from a Catholic perspective there’s a big question that has emerged in my mind and I want to pose it to you:

Is Canadian politics suspicious of Catholics?

What has spurned this question for me was the fact that one of the federal leaders—Andrew Scheer—was a devout, orthodox Catholic, and seemed to face a great deal of suspicion as a result of that, specifically around his views on social issues. Matt Gurney wrote a column for the National Post touching on this point:

“But the biggest mark against Scheer as a leader is probably his religious beliefs. I feel dirty even writing that, because I respect the right of every Canadian to hold their own views on spiritual matters. But I’m also a pragmatist. The Liberals, whenever facing any headwinds, will always, always play the so-con hidden agenda card. It’s low, and often pathetic, but it works, and they aren’t going to stop. And it works best of all when the leader is indeed in fact a social conservative, and one who seemed weirdly unable or unwilling to answer simple questions about how his faith intersects with his professionalism. These were questions the leader and party must have known were coming. They had nothing to say.”

Alberta radio host Charles Adler made a similar point:

“What I saw in this particular campaign was a leader who was highly scripted who could not tell people how he genuinely felt about some of these social issues, couldn’t genuinely say, ‘yes, I’m a faithful Catholic, these are my Catholic beliefs, I’m proud of my church, I’m proud of my beliefs, but I’m proud to be Canadian and I’m proud to abide by the rule of law.”

These are pretty damning statements. We see two points here somewhat at contention: that Mr. Scheer didn’t want to be open or honest about his Catholicism as a prominent national political figure, or that he perhaps felt being honest about his faith would hurt him politically. Those are both difficult pills to swallow.

Interestingly, there are some marked contrasts to this—perhaps being more open about his faith might have defused these criticisms! Articulating his faith has helped Mr. Scheer in the past. Mr. Scheer gave a speech earlier this year in support of the value of diversity and in opposition to corners of Canadian conservatism that embrace racism. In that speech he said:

“I believe that we are all children of God. And therefore there can be no inferiority amongst human beings. And that equal and infinite value exists in each and every one of us.”

This is a statement clearly inspired by Mr. Scheer’s Catholic faith. And I noticed that it received a good deal of positive coverage in Canadian political media. So is the Canadian political world comfortable with Catholic values, in areas of contemporary progressive concern—say, diversity, poverty, and climate change—while suspicious of them in areas of conservative concern–say, abortion and euthanasia?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I think it is worth reflecting on them. Because I deeply believe that we need more well-formed Catholics in public life to help heal our democracy and create a more just society, where every Canadian can live in God-given dignity and beloved community. And it becomes harder to inspire Catholics to participate in politics if political culture is perceived as hostile to a Catholic presence—at least, to a practicing Catholic presence.

What do you think, Matt—is there a strain of anti-Catholicism in our national life? If so, how can we counteract it? How do we show that Catholic citizens are as fully committed to democratic life and dignity for all our neighbours–including, of course, our countless neighbours who do not share our faith, all of whom are children of God!–while living our values?

Matt:   Thank you, Brenda.  This is an important and very difficult topic. The short answer is that yes, I believe there is—and long has been—a strain of fear in society where Catholicism is concerned. How do we counteract it? By living as we should: by carrying on undivided, loving lives of devotion to the Good News of the Gospel, seeing God in each other and in all those God has placed around us.

Always there have been strains of fear in the world when it comes to the Catholic Church. Think of the excesses of the French Revolution, when so many faithful, God-loving people were killed, so many churches and irreplaceable relics destroyed. Likewise, the Dissolution in England, when so many monasteries were destroyed, so many priests hunted down and executed. A little closer to home, in Mexico in the 1920s priests and the lay faithful were hunted down and killed. And of course, there has long been political opposition in the United States, as faced by candidates like Al Smith and John F. Kennedy.

The fear and opposition have been less marked in Canada, due largely I think to its highly Catholic history; but they have always existed here and continue to do so.

Where does this fear come from? I think from a number of causes: first of all, from the Church’s unyielding and often highly inconvenient devotion to the full depth and richness of the Gospels, which give rise to the social teachings of the Church and their insistence on unqualified acceptance of and devotion to the poor, the unloved, and the common good; a strong strain of humility; and the unwavering pursuit of God’s will that all people live together in loving harmony.

Moreover, the Church acknowledges the reality of God’s continuing active interaction with the world (in other words, the reality of miracles); its acceptance of the eternal nature of the soul, as witnessed by our prayerful calls for intercession from the many Saints; and our spiritual submission to an authority, the Pope, that we freely acknowledge to be spiritually superior to ourselves.

To a world built on the primacy of the self, the pursuit of individual material comfort, and the absolute right to personal convenience and spiritual authority, the Church’s focus on a larger, unseen, and often highly inconvenient reality can be daunting.

Fortunately, the answer seems clear, and well within reach: we must simply strive to live the values we profess each Sunday. We must quietly love one another, and all of those around us, by loving participation in all aspects of society—at home, at school, at work, and on the street. We must stay informed about the issues, and gently—always gently!—and bravely speak out about things we know to be right.

In the words of St Francis, all we have to do is preach constantly, using words when necessary. It won’t be easy, and acceptance will never be permanent—the Prince of this World will see to that—but they won’t make us go away (there are way, way too many of us, and our message is true), and we will continue to bring good things to the world.

Forward, through prayer and constant, loving involvement!

B: Devotion to the poor, the unloved, and a strong strain of humility… we desperately need more of that in our politics, don’t we? You’ve touched on a number of issues that speak to the challenges facing the Church and Catholic citizens in our time. Let me address some of them.

Yes, there is a historic strain of anti-Catholicism that has always found expression in North America—particularly in the U.S. And though you’re right that it has been less virulent in Canada, none the less, it’s been found here too. They used to call Toronto the Belfast of North America with its sectarian conflicts between a dominant Orange Order and poor Irish-Catholic immigrants. So those conflicts find there way here.

What is the source of Catholic suspicion now? Though the Church can find common ground and many areas of mutual concern with secular politics, you are correct in that the Church will always hold to the full breadth of its commitment to the dignity of life. Thus, there will always be tension. Every society across history has found ways to undermine the dignity of human life, whether economically, culturally, intellectually, or otherwise. The Church must always be a source of life-affirming truth and bravery in the face of resistance to that truth. Even where it hurts us. And this is why Catholic participation is so essential: to grow the volume and strength of voices who support human dignity, in every way, to fight for those who are unloved. But to also have the humility to listen and to discover where our love and support is needed. As we fight for the issues we are concerned about, we often miss the mark on listening and acting with love! That must be the Catholic approach to politics.

Matt, we often hear that a citizen is not allowed to let their faith inform their politics. That the lens of faith is an inappropriate one in public life. This is an aggressive secularism that goes much further than the proper idea of a neutral space for all religions and communities to participate equally. Instead it demands we leave our values at the door. John Milloy wrote about this beautifully in the Catholic Register. I would love your thoughts on this… what are the keys to participating as a Catholic in public life, to trust in Catholics participating in public life?

M: In a democracy, the best and always indispensable answer is education. It’s important, for example, that Catholics, along with everyone else, understand theories of civics—including the proper roles of government and other social institutions.

The Church long ago agreed with political philosophers that it’s unhealthy for any one individual or social entity to have too much power. Historically, any time that has happened freedom and healthy progress have tended to suffer. One of the fundamental principles of democracy is that division of power promotes conversation, the development of ideas, and progress—particularly when power is divided among as many diverse voices as is responsibly possible.

In the Church’s view, the proper role of government is to set and regulate social conditions in such ways that all individuals are allowed to develop as human beings, putting all of the gifts endowed upon them by a loving Creator to use in living full and productive lives.

A big question, however, is “what is a full and productive life?” Most people would agree that that is a moral question, to be decided by the people themselves on the basis of proper education and reflection. To allow any entity both to decide what is good for people and to regulate conditions for achieving that good is to risk abuse. History has shown us this, time and time again.

Rather, the Church, along with most other responsible groups of thinkers, has concluded that morality should rightly be defined and taught by institutions that are fully independent of government—hopefully many of them– and of responsibly diverse outlooks.
This is the idea behind the separation of Church and State. Separation of Church and State does not mean that the State should be free of all input from moral institutions external to itself, or that the Church should withdraw entirely from public discourse. Rather, the Church should be one moral voice among many, helping and advising those who turn to it on moral and ethical issues. The Church should also, at appropriate times, speak to and on behalf of its people on issues concerning the common good—always, whenever possible, in a thoroughly non-partisan manner,

In doing this, the Church should be joined by and work with other institutions, such as schools, universities, scientific, artistic, and philosophical organizations, and other religious authorities.
Historically, those who have overemphasized the importance of nationalism have questioned the motives of the Church, given its global membership and focus: Catholics have sometimes been portrayed as loyal to a foreign power. It may be that Catholics have an allegiance to a global power, but that power is not temporal, or physical, in nature. It is moral, spiritual, theological, and persuasive only. The Church should never be coercive.

And while some aspects of morality are rightfully local and individual, others of its aspects are regional or global—just as matters of the common good can be individual, local, regional, or global. There is no reason why an international institution should not consider or opine on matters of morality or the common good, and there are many, many reasons why it should.

And in the specific example of the Catholic Church, individual, local, regional, and international aspects of morality are already accounted for—and always have been.

It’s important that independent moral voices such as the Church, other religious institutions, universities and other free societies of thinkers be allowed to freely discern their truths, and share them with each other, so that in Canada and all other nations good and healthy ideas can germinate, be nurtured and blossom.

Twice a month, Matthew Marquardt and Brendan Steven get together over breakfast and talk about what it means to be a Christian citizen. These are their Conscience Conversations. Want to join the conversation? Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching, and how you can serve your community as an active Christian citizen? Reach out to us: email

Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, of counsel to a Toronto law firm, and a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, as well as a lay associate of the Redemptorists.

Brendan Steven is Executive Director of Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, active in the Knights of Columbus and the St Vincent de Paul Society, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.

Social Institutions

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church contemplates and outlines the rights and duties of a number of social institutions, and implies the purposes and utility of others.  In the Church's framework, both the roles and numbers of social institutions is meant to be flexible.  The fundamental criteria is that each, in its own way, is to serve the needs and the purposes of the people, both individually and as social units, in their search for a path back to God.
The Social Institutions                                            
  • The People
    The people are meant by God to spend this life seeking closer unity with him, by uncovering the truth and loving one another into ever-increasing social union.
  • Government
    The government is meant to provide a legal and economic framework in which to foster the common good.
  • The Church
    As the voice and the body of Christ in the world, the Church is meant to evangelize always, in both word and deed. This includes the duty, in union with other legitimate moral institutions, of advising governments and peoples on moral aspects of their plans and activities.
  • Schools, NGOs, and Cultural Organizations
    Schools, NGOs, and other Cultural Organizations are meant to foster and enhance culture & identity by providing a shared and informed understanding, and a means for social discourse.
  • The Media
    It is the duty of the media to ensure that democracy remains rooted in truth.
  • Business & the Economy
    Business and the economy are meant to provide the material benefits necessary to sustain the people in their search for truth, and to aid them in their efforts.
The People
It is our mission, the people’s mission, to use the freedom God has given us to seek truth, and thereby find our way back to God, both as individuals and as societies.  Work, which is an essential part of enabling us to do so, enables us to share in the process of creation.   
Catholic citizens have the right and obligation to participate in society, and in the democratic process.

386. …“Human society must primarily be considered something pertaining to the spiritual. Through it, in the bright light of truth men should share their knowledge, be able to exercise their rights and fulfil their obligations, be inspired to seek spiritual values, mutually derive genuine pleasure from beauty of whatever order it be, always be readily disposed to pass on to others the best of their own cultural heritage and eagerly strive to make their own the spiritual achievements of others. These benefits not only influence but at the same time give aim and scope to all that has bearing on cultural expressions, economic and social institutions, political movements and forms, laws, and all other structures by which society is outwardly established and constantly developed.”

135.  Man can turn to good only in freedom, which God has given to us as one of the highest signs that we are made in God’s image: “For God has willed that man remain ‘under the control of his own decisions’, so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him…”

137.  The proper exercise of personal freedom requires specific conditions of an economic, social, juridic (legal), political and cultural order that “are too often disregarded or violated.”

144.  “God shows no partiality,” since all people have the same dignity as creatures made in his image and likeness… “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Since something of the glory of God shines on the face of every person, the dignity of every person before God is the basis of the dignity of man before other men… Only the recognition of human dignity can make possible the common and personal growth of everyone. To stimulate this kind of growth it is necessary in particular to help the least, effectively ensuring conditions of equal opportunity for men and women and guaranteeing an objective equality between the different social classes before the law.

287.  “Work is a fundamental right and a good for mankind, a useful good, worthy of man because it is an appropriate way for him to give expression to and enhance his human dignity. The Church teaches the value of work not only because it is always something that belongs to the person but also because of its nature as something necessary. Work is needed to form and maintain a family, to have a right to property, to contribute to the common good of the human family…”

288. Work is a good belonging to all people and must be made available to all who are capable of engaging in it. ‘Full employment’ therefore remains a mandatory objective for every economic system oriented towards justice and the common good. A society in which the right to work is thwarted or systematically denied, and in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, ‘cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace”…

190.  Participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen, called to exercise freely and responsibly his civic role with and for others, but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of the democratic system. Democratic government, in fact, is defined first of all by the assignment of powers and functions on the part of the people, exercised in their name, in their regard and on their behalf. It is therefore clearly evident that every democracy must be participative… This means that the different subjects of civil community at every level must be informed, listened to and involved in the exercise of the carried-out functions.”

The Government’s purpose is to provide a legal and economic framework in which the common good can flourish, in order that the people may accomplish their mission,that is, so that the people may use the freedom God has given them to seek the truth.

384.  The human person is the foundation and purpose of political life. Endowed with a rational nature, the human person is responsible for his own choices and able to pursue projects that give meaning to life at the individual and social level. Being open both to the Transcendent and to others is his characteristic and distinguishing trait. Only in relation to the Transcendent and to others does the human person reach the total and complete fulfilment of himself. This means that for the human person, a naturally social and political being, “social life is not something added on” but is part of an essential and indelible dimension.

406. The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate. Thus she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends. Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the ‘subjectivity’ of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility.”

351.  “The action of the State… must be consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and create situations favourable to the free exercise of economic activity. It must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker. Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a ‘Welfare State,’ while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centred localism. In order to respect both of these fundamental principles, the State’s intervention in the economic environment must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs. The State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis…”

352.  “The fundamental task of the State in economic matters is that of determining an appropriate juridical framework for regulating economic affairs, in order to safeguard the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience. Economic activity, above all in a free market context, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. To fulfill this task, the State must adopt suitable legislation but at the same time it must direct economic and social policies in such a way that it does not become abusively involved in the various market activities, the carrying out of which is and must remain free of authoritarian — or worse, totalitarian — superstructures and constraints.”

353.  “It is necessary for the market and the State to act in concert, one with the other, and to complement each other mutually. In fact, the free market can have a beneficial influence on the general public only when the State is organized in such a manner that it defines and gives direction to economic development, promoting the observation of fair and transparent rules, and making direct interventions…”

354.  “The State can encourage citizens and businesses to promote the common good by enacting an economic policy that fosters the participation of all citizens in the activities of production. Respect of the principle of subsidiarity must prompt public authorities to seek conditions that encourage the development of individual capacities of initiative, autonomy and personal responsibility in citizens, avoiding any interference which would unduly condition business forces. With a view to the common good, it is necessary to pursue always and with untiring determination the goal of a proper equilibrium between private freedom and public action… In any case, public intervention must be carried out with equity, rationality and effectiveness, and without replacing the action of individuals…”

394.  “Political authority must guarantee an ordered and upright community life without usurping the free activity of individuals and groups but disciplining and orienting this freedom, by respecting and defending the independence of the individual and social subjects, for the attainment of the common good. Political authority is an instrument of coordination and direction by means of which the many individuals and intermediate bodies must move towards an order in which relationships, institutions and procedures are put at the service of integral human growth. Political authority, in fact, “whether in the community as such or in institutions representing the State, must always be exercised within the limits of morality and on behalf of the dynamically conceived common good, according to a juridical order enjoying legal status. When such is the case citizens are conscience-bound to obey.”

169.  “To ensure the common good, the government of each country has the specific duty to harmonize the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice. The proper reconciling of the particular goods of groups and those of individuals is, in fact, one of the most delicate tasks of public authority. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that in the democratic State, where decisions are usually made by the majority of representatives elected by the people, those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority.”

170. “The common good of society is not an end in itself; it has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation. God is the ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be deprived of its transcendent dimension… Our history — the personal and collective effort to elevate the human condition — begins and ends in Jesus: thanks to him, by means of him and in light of him every reality, including human society, can be brought to its Supreme Good, to its fulfilment. A purely historical and materialistic vision would end up transforming the common good into a simple socioeconomic well-being, without any transcendental goal, that is, without its most intimate reason for existing.”

283.  “Private and public property… must be oriented to an economy of service to mankind, so that they contribute to putting into effect the principle of the universal destination of goods.”

413.  “Political parties have the task of fostering widespread participation and making public responsibilities accessible to all. Political parties are called to interpret the aspirations of civil society, orienting them towards the common good, offering citizens the effective possibility of contributing to the formulation of political choices. They must be democratic in their internal structure, and capable of political synthesis and planning. Another instrument of political participation is the referendum, whereby a form of direct access to political decisions is practised. The institution of representation in fact does not exclude the possibility of asking citizens directly about the decisions of great importance for social life.”

Business & the Economy
The purpose of business and the economy is to provide the material benefits necessary to sustain the people in their search for truth, and to aid them in their efforts.  The economy is meant to serve people, and not the other way around.

334.  “The economy has as its object the development of wealth and its progressive increase, not only in quantity but also in quality; this is morally correct if it is directed to man’s overall development in solidarity and to that of the society in which people live and work. Development, in fact, cannot be reduced to a mere process of accumulating goods and services… accumulation by itself, even were it for the common good, is not a sufficient condition for bringing about authentic human happiness. In this sense, the Church’s social Magisterium warns against the treachery hidden within a development that is only quantitative, for the “excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of ‘possession’ and of immediate gratification … This is the so-called civilization of ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism’.”

336.  “The Church’s social doctrine considers the freedom of the person in economic matters a fundamental value and an inalienable right to be promoted and defended. “Everyone has the right to economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all, and to harvest the just fruits of his labour”… “Experience shows us that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen”. [F]ree and responsible initiative in the economic sphere can also be defined as an act that reveals the humanity of men and women as creative and relational subjects…”

328.  “Goods, even when legitimately owned, always have a universal destination; any type of improper accumulation is immoral, because it openly contradicts the universal destination assigned to all goods by the Creator. Christian salvation is an integral liberation of man, which means being freed not only from need but also in respect to possessions. ‘For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith’ (1 Tim 6:10). The Fathers of the Church insist more on the need for the conversion and transformation of the consciences of believers than on the need to change the social and political structures of their day. They call on those who work in the economic sphere and who possess goods to consider themselves administrators of the goods that God has entrusted to them.”

329.  “Riches fulfill their function of service to man when they are destined to produce benefits for others and for society. “How could we ever do good to our neighbour,” asks St. Clement of Alexandria, “if none of us possessed anything?”. In the perspective of St. John Chrysostom, riches belong to some people so that they can gain merit by sharing them with others. Wealth is a good that comes from God and is to be used by its owner and made to circulate so that even the needy may enjoy it. Evil is seen in the immoderate attachment to riches and the desire to hoard…”

338.  “Businesses should be characterized by their capacity to serve the common good of society through the production of useful goods and services. In seeking to produce goods and services according to plans aimed at efficiency and at satisfying the interests of the different parties involved, businesses create wealth for all of society, not just for the owners but also for the other subjects involved in their activity. Besides this typically economic function, businesses also perform a social function, creating opportunities for meeting, cooperating and the enhancement of the abilities of the people involved. In a business undertaking, therefore, the economic dimension is the condition for attaining not only economic goals, but also social and moral goals, which are all pursued together…”

343.  “Economic initiative is an expression of human intelligence and of the necessity of responding to human needs in a creative and cooperative fashion. Creativity and cooperation are signs of the authentic concept of business competition…”

282.  “The Church’s social Magisterium sees an expression of the relationship between labour and capital also in the institution of private property, in the right to and the use of private property.  The right to private property is subordinated to the principle of the universal destination of goods and must not constitute a reason for impeding the work or development of others. Property, which is acquired in the first place through work, must be placed at the service of work. This is particularly true regarding the possession of the means of production, but the same principle.”

The Church
The Church is the living body and voice of Christ in the world.  Its mission is to evangelize always, in word and deed.  This includes, in cooperation with other moral institutions, advising governments and peoples on moral aspects of their plans, aspirations, and activities.

49.  “The Church, the community of those who have been brought together by the Risen Christ and who have set out to follow him, is “the sign and the safeguard of the transcendent dimension of the human person.”
She is “in Christ a kind of sacrament — a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.” Her mission is that of proclaiming and communicating the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ, which he calls “the Kingdom of God”, that is, communion with God and among men. The goal of salvation, the Kingdom of God embraces all people and is fully realized beyond history, in God. The Church has received “the mission of proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God, and she is, on earth, the seed and the beginning of that Kingdom.”

50.  “The Church places herself concretely at the service of the Kingdom of God above all by announcing and communicating the Gospel of salvation and by establishing new Christian communities. Moreover, she serves the Kingdom by spreading throughout the world the ‘Gospel values’ which are an expression of the Kingdom and which help people to accept God’s plan …the Church is not to be confused with the political community and is not bound to any political system. In fact, the political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other in their own fields, and both are, even if under different titles, “devoted to the service of the personal and social vocation of the same human beings…”

62.  “With her social teaching the Church seeks to proclaim the Gospel and make it present in the complex network of social relations. It is not simply a matter of reaching out to man in society — man as the recipient of the proclamation of the Gospel — but of enriching and permeating society itself with the Gospel. For the Church, therefore, tending to the needs of man means that she also involves society in her missionary and salvific work. The way people live together in society often determines the quality of life and therefore the conditions in which every man and woman understand themselves and make decisions concerning themselves and their vocation. For this reason, the Church is not indifferent to what is decided, brought about or experienced in society; she is attentive to the moral quality — that is, the authentically human and humanizing aspects — of social life. Society — and with it, politics, the economy, labour, law, culture — is not simply a secular and worldly reality, and therefore outside or foreign to the message and economy of salvation. Society in fact, with all that is accomplished within it, concerns man. Society is made up of men and women, who are “the primary and fundamental way for the Church.”

424.  Although the Church and the political community both manifest themselves in visible organizational structures, they are by nature different because of their configuration and because of the ends they pursue. The Second Vatican Council solemnly reaffirmed that, “in their proper spheres, the political community and the Church are mutually independent and self-governing”. The Church is organized in ways that are suitable to meet the spiritual needs of the faithful, while the different political communities give rise to relationships and institutions that are at the service of everything that is part of the temporal common good. The autonomy and independence of these two realities is particularly evident with regards to their ends. The duty to respect religious freedom requires that the political community guarantee the Church the space needed to carry out her mission. For her part, the Church has no particular area of competence concerning the structures of the political community: “The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution”, nor does it belong to her to enter into questions of the merit of political programmes, except as concerns their religious or moral implications.

425.  The mutual autonomy of the Church and the political community does not entail a separation that excludes cooperation. Both of them, although by different titles, serve the personal and social vocation of the same human beings. The Church and the political community, in fact, express themselves in organized structures that are not ends in themselves but are intended for the service of man, to help him to exercise his rights fully, those inherent in his reality as a citizen and a Christian, and to fulfil correctly his corresponding duties. The Church and the political community can more effectively render this service “for the good of all if each works better for wholesome mutual cooperation in a way suitable to the circumstances of time and place.”

Science and the Church:  the Church’s Social Doctrine avails itself of friendly dialogue with all branches of knowledge

76.  The Church’s social doctrine avails itself of contributions from all branches of knowledge, whatever their source, and has an important interdisciplinary dimension. “In order better to incarnate the one truth about man in different and constantly changing social, economic and political contexts, this teaching enters into dialogue with the various disciplines concerned with man. It assimilates what these disciplines have to contribute”. The social doctrine makes use of the significant contributions of philosophy as well as the descriptive contributions of the human sciences.

77.  Above all, the contribution of philosophy is essential. This contribution has already been seen in the appeal to human nature as a source and to reason as the cognitive path of faith itself. By means of reason, the Church’s social doctrine espouses philosophy in its own internal logic, in other words, in the argumentation that is proper to it. Affirming that the Church’s social doctrine is part of theology rather than philosophy does not imply a disowning or underestimation of the role or contribution of philosophy. In fact, philosophy is a suitable and indispensable instrument for arriving at a correct understanding of the basic concepts of the Church’s social doctrine, concepts such as the person, society, freedom, conscience, ethics, law, justice, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, the State. This understanding is such that it inspires harmonious living in society. It is philosophy once more that shows the reasonableness and acceptability of shining the light of the Gospel on society, and that inspires in every mind and conscience openness and assent to the truth.

78.  A significant contribution to the Church’s social doctrine comes also from human sciences and the social sciences. In view of that particular part of the truth that it may reveal, no branch of knowledge is excluded. The Church recognizes and receives everything that contributes to the understanding of man in the ever broader, more fluid and more complex network of his social relationships. She is aware of the fact that a profound understanding of man does not come from theology alone, without the contributions of many branches of knowledge to which theology itself refers. This attentive and constant openness to other branches of knowledge makes the Church’s social doctrine reliable, concrete and relevant. Thanks to the sciences, the Church can gain a more precise understanding of man in society, speak to the men and women of her own day in a more convincing manner and more effectively fulfil her task of incarnating in the conscience and social responsibility of our time, the word of God and the faith from which social doctrine flows.

Freedom of Conscience is Essential, even in Theocratic States

423.  Because of its historical and cultural ties to a nation, a religious community might be given special recognition on the part of the State. Such recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order for other religious groups. The vision of the relations between States and religious organizations promoted by the Second Vatican Council corresponds to the requirements of a State ruled by law and to the norms of international law. The Church is well aware that this vision is not shared by all; the right to religious freedom, unfortunately, “is being violated by many States, even to the point that imparting catechesis, having it imparted, and receiving it become punishable offences”.

Schools, NGOs & Social Institutions
Building culture & identity by providing a shared and informed understanding

Education and Culture

198.  Men and women have the specific duty to move always towards the truth, to respect it and bear responsible witness to it. Living in the truth has special significance in social relationships. In fact, when the coexistence of human beings within a community is founded on truth, it is ordered and fruitful, and it corresponds to their dignity as persons. The more people and social groups strive to resolve social problems according to the truth, the more they distance themselves from abuses and act in accordance with the objective demands of morality. Modern times call for an intensive educational effort and a corresponding commitment on the part of all so that the quest for truth cannot be ascribed to the sum of different opinions, nor to one or another of these opinions — will be encouraged in every sector and will prevail over every attempt to relativize its demands or to offend it. This is an issue that involves the world of public communications and that of the economy in a particular way. In these areas, the unscrupulous use of money raises ever more pressing questions, which necessarily call for greater transparency and honesty in personal and social activity.

166.  The demands of the common good are dependent on the social conditions of each historical period and are strictly connected to respect for and the integral promotion of the person and his fundamental rights. These demands concern above all the commitment to peace, the organization of the State’s powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom[350]. Nor must one forget the contribution that every nation is required in duty to make towards a true worldwide cooperation for the common good of the whole of humanity and for future generations also.

198.  … A nation has a “fundamental right to existence”, to “its own language and culture, through which a people expresses and promotes … its fundamental spiritual ‘sovereignty”’, to “shape its life according to its own traditions, excluding, of course, every abuse of basic human rights and in particular the oppression of minorities”, to “build its future by providing an appropriate education for the younger generation.” The international order requires a balance between particularity and universality, which all nations are called to bring about, for their primary duty is to live in a posture of peace, respect and solidarity with other nations.

376.  Faced with the rapid advancement of technological and economic progress, and with the equally rapid transformation of the processes of production and consumption, the Magisterium senses the need to propose a great deal of educational and cultural formation, for the Church is aware that “to call for an existence which is qualitatively more satisfying is of itself legitimate, but one cannot fail to draw attention to the new responsibilities and dangers connected with this phase of history … In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of man which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones Of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality. Thus a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed, including the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities”.

The Role of Civil Society

417.  …Civil society is the sum of relationships and resources, cultural and associative, that are relatively independent from the political sphere and the economic sector. “The purpose of civil society is universal, since it concerns the common good, to which each and every citizen has a right in due proportion”. This is marked by a planning capacity that aims at fostering a freer and more just social life, in which the various groups of citizens can form associations, working to develop and express their preferences, in order to meet their fundamental needs and defend their legitimate interests.

418.  The political community and civil society, although mutually connected and interdependent, are not equal in the hierarchy of ends. The political community is essentially at the service of civil society and, in the final analysis, the persons and groups of which civil society is composed. Civil society, therefore, cannot be considered an extension or a changing component of the political community; rather, it has priority because it is in civil society itself that the political community finds its justification.

419.  The political community is responsible for regulating its relations with civil society according to the principle of subsidiarity. It is essential that the growth of democratic life begin within the fabric of society. The activities of civil society — above all volunteer organizations and cooperative endeavours in the private-social sector, all of which are succinctly known as the “third sector”, to distinquish from the State and the market — represent the most appropriate ways to develop the social dimension of the person, who finds in these activities the necessary space to express himself fully. The progressive expansion of social initiatives beyond the State- controlled sphere creates new areas for the active presence and direct action of citizens, integrating the functions of the State. This important phenomenon has often come about largely through informal means and has given rise to new and positive ways of exercising personal rights, which have brought about a qualitative enrichment of democratic life.

420.  …Many experiences of volunteer work are examples of great value that call people to look upon civil society as a place where it is possible to rebuild a public ethic based on solidarity, concrete cooperation and fraternal dialogue. All are called to look with confidence to the potentialities that thus present themselves and to lend their own personal efforts for the good of the community in general and, in particular, for the good of the weakest and the neediest. In this way, the principle of the “subjectivity of society” is also affirmed.

The Media
Rooting democracy in truth

414.  Information is among the principal instruments of democratic participation. Participation without an understanding of the situation of the political community, the facts and the proposed solutions to problems is unthinkable. It is necessary to guarantee a real pluralism in this delicate area of social life, ensuring that there are many forms and instruments of information and communications. It is likewise necessary to facilitate conditions of equality in the possession and use of these instruments by means of appropriate laws. Among the obstacles that hinder the full exercise of the right to objectivity in information, special attention must be given to the phenomenon of the news media being controlled by just a few people or groups. This has dangerous effects for the entire democratic system when this phenomenon is accompanied by ever closer ties between governmental activity and the financial and information establishments.

415.  The media must be used to build up and sustain the human community in its different sectors: economic, political, cultural, educational and religious. “The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity”. The essential question is whether the current information system is contributing to the betterment of the human person; that is, does it make people more spiritually mature, more aware of the dignity of their humanity, more responsible or more open to others, in particular to the neediest and the weakest. A further aspect of great importance is the requisite that new technologies respect legitimate cultural differences.

Conscience Conversations, Pt. 3: A patron saint for citizens

M:  If you’re okay with it, Brendan, I’d like to go one more round on the topic of saints for Catholic citizens.  There’s one in particular I’d like to mention.  He’s possibly a special one for Catholic Conscience:  Saint John Cardinal Fisher was a friend of Saint Thomas More, and was martyred with him.  He served as bishop of Rochester, England, and was chancellor of Cambridge University.

A quotation of his that I saw in Magnificat Magazine has caused me to wonder why he is not more frequently invoked, and what sorts of things we at Catholic Conscience might turn to him for. The quote was:

In the beginning of the world, almighty God made paradise a place of honest pleasure.  And from out of that place issued a flood divided into four parts, signifying the four capital virtues: justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude, with which the whole soul could be washed and made pleasant as with so many waters.  But contrariwise, the devil has conceived and made another paradise of bodily and sensual pleasure, and from out of that come four other floods, far contrary to the others:

  • the flood of covetousness contrary to justice,
  • the flood of gluttony against temperance,
  • the flood of pride against prudence, and
  • the flood of lechery against fortitude.

Whoever is drowned in any of these floods finds it hard to be turned to God by true contrition, for the raging of them is so great and overflowing…

What is the remedy for us who are in the midst of all these floods?  Where shall we fly?  Truly, God is the only remedy and refuge, for without his help none can escape without being drowned…

This Saint seems to me to have great potential for Catholic Conscience, especially as he does not yet appear to have been claimed as patron of any particular cause:  whereas St. Joseph is patron of workers and St. Thomas More is patron of lawyers and politicians, St. John appears to have been adopted only by individual schools, parishes, and dioceses.

What do you think?  Has St. John Fisher got things to teach us?  Should we consider adopting him, with St. Mary, as a patron of Catholic Conscience?

B: Your question has provoked the best kind of response—you’ve inspired some Googling! I have never heard of Saint John Fisher and so I’ve done some reading to see what I could learn. I’m so impressed by what I’ve discovered. So much of this extraordinary Christian’s life can act as a spiritual guide for all of us as citizens.

First, John Fisher the academic. He won the patronage of the King’s mother and used it to found Christ College and St. John’s College at Cambridge. He was famously Chancellor of Cambridge, and Bishop of Rochester. And so we start with the first great virtuous work of his life: the work of education, of teaching theology, of deepening the Christian understanding. We can take so much inspiration from his relentless commitment to spiritual formation and growth, which is so much part of our mission at Catholic Conscience.

Second, John Fisher the man of principle speaking truth to power. He incurred the wrath of his King again and again, particularly as Henry VIII marched Britain towards schism. Like Thomas More he eventually paid for his principles with his life. And like Thomas More we can be inspired by his example of refusing to violate the core tenets of his faith—of standing firm where moral clarity was needed.

Third, John Fisher the preacher. Apparently one of his great missions in life was to improve the standards of preaching in England. He was a legendarily charismatic and compelling public speaker, and his many sermons and books made him a leading European theologian. Catholic Conscience and its members dare to speak openly and publicly about Catholic social teaching and about building a society and culture of love and tenderness. We can learn from Fisher in this mission. Fisher is an example of a daring and thoughtful public persuader, who used the power of words to win hearts. Like Francis de Sales, he should inspire us in our mission of evangelization.

Fourth, and certainly not least of which, is John Fisher the citizen. What greater act of citizenship is there than speaking out against injustices promulgated by power? What greater act of love for neighbour is there in a democracy, than a willingness to speak up when the politics of the day is failing the public? In his principled stands on the issues of his time, John Fisher models citizenship—even to his death. And so, in our mission of forming good and active Christian citizens, we could hardly do better than such a noble model of Christian citizenship.

Matthew, what most struck you in reading about the life of John Fisher? And were it up to you what he would patronize, what would you choose?

M:  I think maybe you’ve suggested the answer yourself: my answer to both questions is citizenship.  Specifically, I would nominate Saint John Fisher as patron of Christian citizenship, because it strikes me forcibly that he used the full range of his prodigious gifts, to the limits of his strength—to the extent of laying down his life—to bring Christ to others, to everyone around him in society: to the students and the diocese he was given to oversee, to his peers in academia and the Church, and to the secular powers above him.  And on that basis, it seems to me that you have made a great case for naming him one of the patrons of Catholic Conscience.

Do you agree?

B: I couldn’t agree more.

Saint John Fisher, pray for us!

Twice a month, Matthew Marquardt and Brendan Steven get together over breakfast and talk about what it means to be a Christian citizen. These are their Conscience Conversations. Want to join the conversation? Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching, and how you can serve your community as an active Christian citizen? Reach out to us: email

Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, a partner at a major Toronto law firm, and a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

 Brendan Steven is Executive Director of Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.

Conscience Conversations, Pt 2: Saints for Catholic Citizens

One of the greatest spiritual tools afforded to us as Catholics in our journey towards God is the inspiration offered by the lives of saints. The saints are not just close to God in a special way, and people we can reach out to as a path of prayer. The endless array of saints and their stories reminds us of the diversity of ways people find God throughout history, the great continuum of vocations and missions God imparts to his children, and how all of us—in our own time, in our own way, in our own actions—can become saints.

Brendan:  Catholic Conscience is devoted especially to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. But we too can draw from the blessed example of many saints. So, when you think of our mission as an organization—and the mission facing all Catholics, of becoming well-formed Christian citizens—who are the saints who inspire you the most? Who are the saints whose lives have special relevance to our work?

Matthew: A great question, worthy of thought.

Along with faith in special works and graces empowered by God—typically called miracles—the Catholic concept of saints is something that sets us Catholics, and our Orthodox sisters and brothers, apart. To me, that’s sad. Too many people are missing out on a good thing. The cause, I think, is that too many people, Catholic and otherwise, confuse the concept of saints with devotion to plaster statues, images, and other objects. Such objects, which can best be thought of as tools for devotion, can be wonderful helps in focusing, contemplation, and the creation of beauty. Misused, they can lead us apart from the real idea of saints, and through our actions, maybe even help drive others further away from God.

Really, the concept of saints is pretty simple. Like many people, we Catholics believe that when an individual’s life ends, her or his spirit, or soul, continues along its journey, hopefully moving in a new way closer toward God. In the larger sense, all of these souls who continue their pilgrimage can be thought of as ‘saints’, the more so as they grow closer.  Those whose cases have been carefully investigated and approved by the Church for general reverence are typically capitalized as “Saints”, with a capital “S”.

The key is our belief that although we can no longer see or touch those pilgrim souls, there’s nothing to say we can’t continue to speak with them, through prayer, and ask them to help us by joining in our prayers.  Presumably the most holy and devoted of these saints, being ever closer to God and being more practiced at prayer, have a better chance of being heard than we who are still at some distance, in the “living” world we know.

There’s nothing scary or illogical about it at all.

This means we have lots of choices for people to turn to, both as individuals and as a society.

In addition to our Immaculate Mother, her husband is a great choice, particularly for Canadians: St Joseph is patron of our country. Being one of the world’s quiet, devoted workers, he seems an excellent choice for Canada, as someone who is likely to have found very great favor with God. I recommend him heartily.

There are many saints for special causes—they can be so effective, in fact, that they get relegated to somewhat narrow channels for petition, and sometimes become almost like family members.

In 2000, Pope St. John Paul II declared St Thomas More to be the universal patron of statesmen and politicians.  At his execution by Henry VIII, St Thomas declared himself “the king’s good servant, but God’s first. Truly “a witness to the truth that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality.”  Obviously a great resource for Catholic Conscience and others interested in politics and proper social order.

It’s interesting to note St Thomas More was executed in 1535, just four years after Our Lady commissioned St Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin for the building of a chapel near Mexico City. Our Lady of Guadalupe is patroness of all the Americas, which makes her another great choice for us, and is part of the reason Catholic Conscience is consecrated to her Immaculate Heart.

There are many, many choices beyond that: basically, any good person who has gone ahead in his/her pilgrimage is a candidate. I, for example, pray to Juan Diego for humility; to my Uncle George, who died before I was born, as my guardian angel; and to my father and brother to keep an eye on my children. And I pray to a (very good Catholic) baseball player named Charlie Gehringer for the help in obtaining the grace to shut up and work hard.

B: I did not know St. Joseph was patron of Canada! And patron of hard work, the ever-needed virtue in the task of building a better world. A very appropriate saint for any Catholic citizen to keep in mind.

I suppose I’ll add a couple more for consideration. In the work Catholic Conscience does in forming Christians in the wisdom of Catholic social teaching, I look to the example of Saint Francis de Sales. I knew of Saint Francis de Sales before joining Catholic Conscience. He is, after all, the patron saint of writers–a good saint for a writer to keep at heart! He is famous for a few things. As Bishop of Geneva, he was a gentle evangelizer during the Reformation. His pamphlets and other written materials helped persuade thousands to rejoin the Church. He was, in that way, the progenitor of a democratic citizen in fine form—someone who seeks to peacefully persuade, who is open to conversation, encounter, and conversion. Saint Francis de Sales comes to mind when I think of ideal citizens. I also appreciate deeply his practical approach to the task of living a Christian life. His Introduction to the Devout Life is a very pragmatic approach to deepening faith, a guide which embraces the philosophy that sustained, disciplined action over time can change hearts and souls. Such a perfect metaphor for the work of being a virtuous Christian citizen. I find all the great civic virtues are learned through good practice. And, of course, Catholic Conscience seeks to gently persuade others of the wisdom of Catholic social teaching—a work Saint Francis de Sales would appreciate, I’m sure.

I admire greatly Saint Ignatius of Loyola as an institution-builder, constructing the Jesuits from the ground up through work, commitment, and of course the grace of God. I think of him often as we build the works and mission of Catholic Conscience.

So much of being a good Christian citizen depends on fighting for the preferential option for the poor. Though not (yet, I hope) a saint, Dorothy Day’s work for the vulnerable and abandoned continues to inspire me. I likely wouldn’t be involved in the causes I am involved in, were it not for her example. Dorothy Day’s example of Christian citizenship reminds us brilliantly: to be a Christian in community is to prioritize the good of others over ourselves. We must constantly remember that Christ is closest to the least, and to be close to him, we must be close to them. We must find the hidden corners where injustice thrives, and bring in the light.

You also mentioned some personal examples. My grandmother Rose, who passed many years ago, exemplified a gentle wisdom and piety that burns a fire in my heart as if she were alive before my eyes today. When I need patience, when I want to do the just thing, when I feel penitent for sins, when I want to have an open heart instead of a closed one, her example continues to inspire.

 M: Excellent examples.  St Francis de Sales and saint Dorothy both have much to teach us, and I expect they are eager to help us move our prayers along.

The only further examples I can think to add are two named Francis—our current Pope, and the original, from Assisi.  I think the world needs both very badly.  Pope Francis, of course, is still with us – but that just means we should pray that God help him in guiding us, and gathering souls to Christ.

We talked earlier about the different “ages” of humanity.  It’s interesting to me that St Francis of Assisi came to prominence at the end of the Church’s first millennium; and that it was only at the end of the 2nd millennium that the first Pope to adopt his name appeared. It’s a powerful name, and the world needs it sorely.

Let’s pray that these holy people will watch over us, and guide our efforts with Catholic Conscience.

Twice a month, Matthew Marquardt and Brendan Steven get together over breakfast and talk about what it means to be a Christian citizen. These are their Conscience Conversations. Want to join the conversation? Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching, and how you can serve your community as an active Christian citizen? Reach out to us: email

 Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, a partner at a major Toronto law firm, and a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

 Brendan Steven is a director with Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.

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