MP Paul Dewar says faith is political

By Dennis Gruending

Paul Dewar, MP - Ottawa CentreYou cannot be a person of faith without being political, says Paul Dewar, the New Democratic Party MP for Ottawa Centre. Dewar spoke to the Faith and Public Life class at the Ottawa Lay School of Theology on February 9th.  “Faith and politics are congruent and we have no option but to be political if we are going to live the gospel. We have to constantly question what the Christian message is, and we can never stop trying to change the way things are in society.” Dewar says that for him the word “political” includes electoral politics but also transcends it. “Our response to faith must be lived out in community,” he says. “Faith is something that we must do and not only think about.”

Dewar talked about how he grew up in a Catholic household in Ottawa in the post-Vatican II era in the 1960s. “My parents were both deeply involved in their church and they extended that into the community. Their faith, their community and their attempt to live the gospel were all of one woven cloth.” Dewar says that their parish priest, a member of the Basilian order, was also a valuable member of the community. “He was quiet and intelligent and able to work with others.” Through him, Dewar became involved in Alleluia House, a project inspired by Jean Vanier (who later created L’Arche) to have a community for people who were developmentally delayed. “These people were not unusual to me, they were my neighbours,” adds Dewar.

Dewar says that his parents’ participation in the Catholic Family Movement in the 1960s “levered their social action.” Initially it was Dewar’s father Ken who was the more political member of the family, but it was his mother Marion, a public health nurse, who eventually ran for public office. “She was involved in the church and extended that into the community and she got into public life in that way.” Marion Dewar became the mayor of Ottawa in 1978 and later served as an NDP Member of Parliament. “I was raised in the Catholic church but in the social democratic faith as well,” Dewar says, “but I would say that it was a 75-25 per cent quotient of faith over politics that influenced who I am.”

He says that it was not easy for Catholics of his parent’s generation to be social democrats (members of the CCF and later the New Democratic Party) because of opposition from many Catholic bishops. Dewar referred a book called Catholics and Canadian Socialism, written by former priest and academic Gregory Baum. In it Baum documents how bishops in Quebec and Saskatchewan in the 1930s and 40s forbade Catholics to support the CCF. The bishops’ in their criticism failed to draw a distinction between communism and the democratic socialism of people like J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas, who ironically were also religious ministers.

The bishops’ campaign was not entirely successful, Dewar says. “There were agrarian radicals like Joe Burton in Humboldt, Saskatchewan who challenged the church by running for the CCF. We also had Catholic labour people and activists in places such as Antigonish, Nova Scotia doing the same thing. The bishops neither welcomed nor expected debate on these matters but some people began to challenge the church and the Vatican.”

Dewar says that as he grew older and attended university he took a break from the church. “But it never left me. I kept reading and thinking and questioning.” At one point his mother introduced him to the mayor of Managua and following completion of his first university degree Dewar 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.”

Dewar became a teacher and later became involved in his union. He was vice-president of the Ottawa Carleton Elementary School Teachers’ Federation and helped establish the teachers’ Humanity Fund, providing donations to projects in developing countries. He was elected to the House of Commons in 2006 and again in 2008. He was asked following his presentation at the Lay School if he talks publicly about his religion in political settings. “Not often,” he replied. “I am prepared to talk openly about faith in settings such as this class, 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.”

Dewar says his mother was an example to him in this way as well. “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. 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.”

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

2 thoughts on “MP Paul Dewar says faith is political”

  1. I have a somewhat vague recollection of our old Benedictine pastor in Bruno, Sask., preaching against the “reds”, or CCF. This was probably during the 1944 provincial election campaign, which the CCF won!

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment. My father had recall of a similar message when he was growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1930s. 

  2. Hi,

    I missed the Lay School of Theology this year again, as I go south. I have just read Paul Dewar’s description of his faith and his politics and feel invigorated and delighted with his wisdom. My “crowd” of political and socially active women knew his mother and were inspired by her. We also knew about her faith. Paul’s last two paragraphs above are a wonderful explanation of the right relationship between faith and politics. It is too easy to fall into a trap of attempting to score political points with religion. A politics fed by and supported by one’s spirituality seems very appropriate, just as one’s politics could be fed by and supported by other humane underpinnings. To organize politically around one’s faith is another matter, and generally leads to intolerance and the end of the conversation.

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