Political Priest Broker

There are no longer any Catholic priests sitting in the Canadian House of Commons, or in any other Canadian legislature. To the best of my knowledge, no Catholic nun has sat as an elected representative in a Canadian legislature. For that matter, there shouldn’t be Catholic priests or nuns sitting as elected legislators anywhere. The last Catholic priest to sit as an elected Canadian legislator was Father Bob Ogle, who sat in the House of Commons as a member of the New Democratic Party between 1979 and 1984, representing a Saskatoon riding. All of this changed when Pope John Paul II reminded priests that, according to canon law, sitting as an elected representative was generally incompatible with functioning as a member of a religious order. Despite having won his nomination to run in the 1984 federal election. Father Ogle had to step down. The Pope understood that politics involves brokerage, and priests cannnot broker Catholic religious faith.

Canadian Member of Parliament Charlie Angus, also a member of the New Democratic Party and a Catholic, voted in favour of same-sex marriage in the House of Commons. He found, to his apparent surprise, that he was refused the Sacrament of Communion at his local parish, based on having contravened the view of the Catholic church that homosexual behaviour is a sin. He didn’t seem to appreciate that, in the view of the Catholic church, he couldn’t leave the tenets of his religion at the door of a legislature.

No elected official represents a completely homogenous electoral constituency. The elected official is to represent all of his or her constituents, not only those who share the same religious, social or economic lens. If one is incapable of brokering deeply-held beliefs, it would seem best to be advocating those beliefs from outside a legislature.

When I am at a Catholic service, I don’t seek the Sacrament of Communion. I don’t live a Catholic life, yet am most comfortable in a Catholic religious environment. At most services, I end up as part of a group of several others who sit quietly, while the majority lines up for Communion. None of us sitting there leaving our beliefs at the church door, but all of us respecting those following the faith. The respect at the door of a democratic legislature is to appreciate that, contrary to a house of worship, positions can rarely be absolute.

Consider the nominally Catholic lawyer who does divorce after divorce file…

Maybe not.

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6 Responses to Political Priest Broker

  1. On September 17, 2011, Lorne commented as follows (e-mail extract reproduced with permission):

    I think the Pope made the right call, though the role of the Catholic priest is different from that of Protestant clergy. The United Church had no problems with Bill Blaikie serving in the House, and three current Conservatives come to my mind as pastors; I am sure there are others. (I had thought one of the early Bloc MPs was also a priest, and that would have been since 1984.)

    The primary issue I see regarding people of faith (not just clergy) holding public office revolves around determining just whose vote is being cast. Preston Manning and I had a disagreement about that 20 years ago.

    I feel that the candidate lays his/her beliefs before the voters and votes those beliefs if elected, thus avoiding hypocrisy. The voters chose the best person, not a voting parrot, and accept that sometimes their MP will vote their conscience not the popular will. As I explained to Preston, my potential constituents and I would not have held the same views on the death penalty, and I wouldn’t vote their view, because they were wrong.

    I don’t buy the view, held for example by the McGuinty brothers, that they have a duty to vote against their beliefs, because not everyone shares those beliefs. Christian faith is not a matter of convenience, and theology is not something you can pick or choose based on whether it offends someone or not. If someone who has made his Roman Catholicism part of his political image (which I would argue Dalton and David have done). If their votes don’t reflect their faith or church teachings on topics such as same sex marriage, then how can they be trusted on anything? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that it holds the keys to eternal life, which would be, I think, one of the, if not the biggest, issue a person can deal with. A Roman Catholic politician who ignores church teaching, for political popularity, shows his/her true colours.

  2. I agree with Lorne. Either you are committed to your values, or you aren’t. Lots of people aren’t committed to values, regardless of what they think or say – just look at their behavior, like Bruce’s Catholic lawyer doing divorces.

    A value is a belief, applied regardless of situation. It is an “attitude”, whose application varies by situation. Many people “have attitude”, but not values.

    If you are going along with your Prime Minister and your Party just to be accepted as a member of the group, that is not values.

    If you are flexibly applying values, situation by situation, I say you are basically self-interested and not committed to values.

    If you are sacrificing your self- interest for what passes for the public morality in your society, you may have values but watch out – in Nazi Germany a lot of people were not considered people – a value at that time and place – but after the war, it was not a legitimate defence to say it wasn’t your fault that you did…

    The eternal values are God’s values, true basically everywhere and every time.

    The Pope got it right in my opinion. The fact that Protestant ministers don’t have a Pope puts an extra burden of potential sinfulness on their shoulders.

  3. An e-mail exchange between Bruce and Lorne, September 18, 2011 (reproduced with Lorne’s permission):

    Bruce: For an NDP Member, it would seem very difficult to campaign on the basis that one’s faith was an essential component to one’s political advocacy;

    Lorne: Tell that to J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas. The NDP only exists to be a political expression of faith in action. Unfortunately it’s also a prime example of what Dr. Arnold Cook refers to as “generational drift.”

    Bruce: I would think an evangelical Christian–or, for that matter, most persons with strong Christian beliefs, other than within the United Church–would be uncomfortable campaigning for the NDP or the Liberals.

    Lorne: Yet there are many evangelicals in both parties, despite their support for anti-Christian policies such as same sex marriage and abortion. There are many reasons for that, not the least being that no major Canadian party is offering an alternative to the status quo on those issues. If nobody is willing to be different, then you make your choice on other issues.

  4. An e-mail exchange between Bruce and Lorne, September 20, 2011 (reproduced with Lorne’s permission):

    Bruce: My sentiment is that you can’t come to politics, representing a pluralistic community, with unbrokerable moral beliefs. Probably naive.

    Lorne: So do you automatically exclude all people with deep faith from getting involved in politics? And what does a system with no absolutes look like? Aren’t you too old to believe in postmodernism?

  5. On September 20, 2011, Neil Remington Abramson commented as follows (e-mail correspondence reproduced with permission):

    You might also be interested in Heidegger’s discussions on “authencity” vs “inauthenticity” , which are probably based on Kierkegaard’s discussions re self-assessment.

    The inauthentic person attempts to make others responsible for his/her actions and success by following their prescriptions, and accepting the reward/punishment system that offers guidance. But I think that dehumanizes, because s/he becomes what is expected, rather than following his/her own true potential.

    The authentic person eschews the prescriptions, rewards, and punishments to pursue genuine self-actualization. Kierkegaard puts a religious spin on it; Heidegger de-religions it to become existential.

  6. With the entry of Paul Dewar into the leadership race for the New Democratic Party, there are some dimensions of his political life that are now identified as faith-based:

    Dewar’s call to politics borne of his faith

    By Paul Gessell, The Ottawa Citizen October 3, 2011

    OTTAWA — By seeking the federal New Democratic Party leadership, Paul Dewar follows in the footsteps of such party luminaries as J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and Bill Blaikie, who all saw politics as a way to achieve the goals of the social gospel.

    These CCF-NDP politicians and role models for Dewar were all protestant clergymen before entering politics. Woodsworth and Douglas both became party leaders; Blaikie hungered for the leadership but never got it.

    Dewar’s background is as a teacher, but his call to politics was heavily influenced by the religious beliefs passed on to him by his activist parents, Ken and Marion Dewar, and by the Ottawa church the family attended for decades, St. Basil’s Roman Catholic.

    “Faith and politics are congruent and we have no option but to be political if we are going to live the gospel,” Dewar is quoted as saying in the forthcoming book Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life by Ottawa author and former NDP MP Dennis Gruending. “We have to constantly question what the Christian message is and we can never stop trying to change the way things are in society.”

    Dating back to the 1950s, St. Basil’s had a reputation for producing political activists with a Christian conscience. Perhaps the most famous graduate of that church was Paul’s mother Marion, who served as Ottawa mayor, president of the federal NDP and, briefly, as an MP.

    Mark O’Neill, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corp., attended St. Basil’s while growing up and gives much of the credit to that church environment for fostering his own drive to help his fellow man through volunteer work and through a career in the public service.

    “That church had spawned a whole generation of activists,” says O’Neill. “Marion Dewar was there and so was former councillor Toddy Kehoe. People tended to become very active in the community in that church in really positive ways in such issues as immigrants and local health issues.”

    Paul Dewar does not normally speak publicly about his religious beliefs but agreed in early 2009 to address a class in Faith and Public Life taught by Gruending at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality. Along with being an author and former MP, Gruending’s C.V. includes stints as a newspaper journalist, CBC broadcaster and director of communications for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

    “I am prepared to talk openly about faith in settings such as this class,” Dewar said in 2009, “but when speaking in a political capacity I am reluctant to do so because I fear I could be misunderstood and I do not want to use religion to score political points.”

    Marion Dewar operated in a similar way. She attended mass daily but was not known for mixing religion and politics in an obvious manner while on the campaign trail.

    “Many people who attended my mother’s funeral and an associated event at Ottawa City Hall were surprised to hear about the depth of her faith,” Paul said. “She was profoundly spiritual, but she was also aware of where faith belonged. She did not place her Catholic faith in the forefront in her public life and she was also very open to all faiths and religions.”

    Much of Gruending’s book deals with the clash of political ideologies held by two very different adherents of Christianity. On one side, there are the mainly leftward-leaning politicians from both the mainstream protestant and so-called progressive wing of the Catholic church. On the other side, there are the more rightward-leaning social conservatives who belong to evangelical protestant churches and traditional elements of the Catholic church.

    Leading architects of the current federal Conservative party, including Preston Manning, Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper, are all members of evangelical protestant churches with conservative social values.

    So, if Paul Dewar becomes the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Parliament could, more than ever, become something of a battlefield, not just between left and right, but between two competing value systems spawned from different interpretations of Christianity.

    “I was raised in the Catholic Church but in the social democratic faith as well,” Dewar told Gruending’s class. “But I would say that it was a 75-25 per cent quotient of faith over politics that influenced who I am.”

    Dewar said it was not always easy for Catholics of his parents’ generation to be social democrats and join the NDP or its forerunner, the CCF, because of opposition from Catholic bishops. The bishops feared the democratic socialism of people like Woodsworth and Douglas was really communism.

    As a young man, Dewar drifted away from the church until he spent six months working in Nicaragua. “I was influenced by what I saw happening in the Christian community there. I saw how poor people who had been in a paternalistic relationship with the church used liberation theology to understand what the gospel was all about. They discovered that social justice and the sharing of resources was what Christ was talking about. I had never seen this manifested to such a degree. It was when I came back from Nicaragua that I came back to the church.”

    Pulpit and Politics by Dennis Gruending is being published this month by Kingsley Publishing and will be available at Britton’s at 846 Bank St., through the website http://www.alpinebookpeddlers.ca/node/491 or by calling 1-866-478-2280.

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