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.

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