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.

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.

Conscience Conversations Pt. 1: There’s room on the boat for all

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.

M: The weekend before last, there was a choice of two readings for the second reading. The second choice was Hebrews, 9:24-28; 10:19-23, which spoke to Christ’s role in guiding us through the age that was starting at that time:  the “Christian Era”.

B: To my eyes, you’ve hit on a key question of the age. And to be blunt, it’s a question our predecessors in the Christian communion have had to answer in quite the same way. Jesus Christ left us eternal truth, in the form of principles aligned with the divine will—and, therefore, our best natures as children of God. The eternal nature of those truths are such that they can and must be applied across history and culture. Today they are challenged by profound change in society.

But there’s always been change. What’s new about today’s change is how quickly it’s happening, how all-encompassing it is, how unprecedented it is. The Internet “age” only began a few decades ago, and yet today’s world couldn’t even have been imagined by our parents. As with every generation of Christians, we must face the challenges of the moment with new answers inspired by Christian principles. Inspired by Christ and inspired by Mary’s special devotion to God and her son, a devotion we are called to emulate.

But as we face these external challenges, we’re reminded of the eternal challenge—the challenge that has been the same for every generation of believers. This is the internal challenge, the fact that the battle against sin is first and foremost a battle waged by our own souls, by God and Christ, against our own evils. I believe this is at least in part the role Catholic Conscience is meant to play in this time.

The challenges of Christian citizenship are external challenges–how do we reform our government, our society, to achieve justice and reconciliation between our fellow people? How do we serve those who live in our culture’s suffering, hidden corners? How do we create a culture that loves and defends the dignity of all people, and the dignity of all life and creation? We must rise to these external challenges.

But Catholic Conscience is also concerned about the internal challenge of Christian citizenship—how our own vices corrupt our ability to live in loving community, particularly in loving democratic community, with our fellow citizens. This is in part why I have felt such inspiration in our work. This is the part we must play in the victory of the Immaculate Heart. This is the fundamental call all Christians must answer. We must heal the polis, yes, the body politic—but Catholic Conscience is uniquely saying, we must also heal the citizens themselves.

The first choice was Ephesians, 1:17-23, which among other things says “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of [your] hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come.”

Now, Mary has also mentioned ages once or twice. Most notably at Fatima in 1917, where she warned of the need to pray for penance and consecration, specifically to her Immaculate Heart (hence the pin I wear).

Now, it does seem quite possible to me that now, 2000 years later (remember that God’s sense of timing is not quite as strictly defined as our own), we are passing into a new age. In the 20th century, the world became very small—instant communications worldwide, the ability to circle the globe in 24 hours, greatly expanded populations, successful birth rates, and longevity. All the cultures of the world have come together, and we are consuming way too fast to support self-interested greed.

My question to you, Brendan Steven:  if indeed we are in the transition from one age to another, and currently in a phase that involves intense pruning of a proud Church, then is it possible that Catholic Conscience might play some role in bringing about the victory of the Immaculate Heart, in ushering in a new age of Mary and her Son?

M: An interesting answer, with which I heartily agree.  Every generation, I think, faces unique challenges, so that every generation is forced to think for itself, to make its own choices—so that every individual in every generation is forced to make choices which bring him closer to God, or take him further away.  We all want to live, to find God and make sure we are right with Him so that we might continue joyfully after this life.  But Christ, uniquely among religious figures, has taught us that the best way to do that—the only authentic way to put ourselves right with God—involves a dimension of looking after one another as well as ourselves.  We are meant to seek Him, and in doing so to help Him bring others to Him.

Building from the substantial body of teachings Christ has given us, the Church has provided us with profound guidance at both the individual and social levels, the genius of its social teachings being that the only legitimate purpose of society is to assist the individual in seeking that Truth which is God.  Anything inconsistent with that is at least potentially harmful.

The tumult and the chaos of today’s world put me in mind of Christ calming the seas, and the remarkable sculpture recently created by Timothy Schmalz.

Here at the opening of the third millennium we are forced into the realization that the boat we’ve boarded as Christ’s disciples may be large enough for all, but that it’s a tight fit—there are many, many more people entitled to a seat on it than we had imagined.  Only if we steer the boat with the good of all in mind can we hope to reach shore safely.

Fortunately, if we look at our fellow voyagers, we will see not only people of all races, but the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and the wings of God’s guiding angel.

B: Wow, I love this statue. And I love your comment about what it represents. The idea that Christ envisioned a church where literally everyone could take part, where all are welcome. It’s a beautiful image, and one to aspire to. This is what we are called to by Catholic social teaching. I love this image for another reason as well.

One of the ironies of living in this world that feels increasingly small, increasingly without boundaries, increasingly frictionless in the ways we can communicate and share with one another—is how this has led to even more friction. We have access to the humanity of others in an unprecedented way, reading stories from around the world, communicating instantly with people across the globe. But more and more we dehumanize those around us, denying them their inherent dignity. We’re afraid to share what space and resources we have. The treatment of “others” of all kinds, whether immigrants, refugees, Indigenous Canadians, you name them, is deplorable. We find it easier to hide away people whose dignity is undermined, rather than confront injustice and secure for them the dignity they deserve.

But I love what this statue says about how we are called as Christians to live a life of love, how we must approach the task of living with others. This statue reminds us: we are called to live a certain neighbourliness. Look at the people on this boat. They barely have an inch of space between them, but they are in harmony with one another. More than that: they seem to be holding each other up, caring for each other, each accorded the space they need. And every one of them have their eyes turned up ahead–presumably, towards the Truth, towards Christ, towards God.

What a lovely inspiration for how all of us can live together in this “smaller” world—by following the virtues taught us by Catholic social teaching, by being neighbourly and welcoming, by accepting the dignity of everyone around us, by keeping our eyes ahead on what matters most!

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 We’ll tell you about our upcoming events, latest activities, and ways you can get involved!

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