Stephen Harper’s majority, one year later

 

Stephen Harper's majority, one year later

On May 2, 2011 Canadians held a federal election that provided Stephen Harper and the Conservatives with a majority government. I wrote a piece for my blog at the time reviewing the election through a religious lens and making some predictions about how Harper might act with a majority. That blog entry also became the first essay in a book, called Pulpit and Politics that was published in October 2011. Take a look at my analysis and predictions below and decide how accurate they have been. (I mentioned, for example, that we might expect Conservative backbenchers to continue bringing forward private member’s bills and motions that could curtail a woman’s right to abortion – that happened again just this week).

Coveted majority

Stephen Harper has won his long-coveted majority government, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by Ipsos Reid on May 2 yielded some predictable results based on the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises.

Protestant vote

One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a figure far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Catholic vote

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal, or Bloc Quebecois Parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

Catholics had moved to the Conservatives in significant numbers in the 2006 and 2008 elections, but that trend may now be in question. Of course, a big story in the 2011 election was the huge losses endured by the Liberals. They had long been the party of choice for Catholics in Canada, but their poor overall performance in the 2011 election was also reflected in the party’s results among the Catholic constituency. The Catholic vote is now up for grabs and the stakes are high. Catholics constitute more than 40 per cent of the Canadian population.

Jewish vote 

A third observation based on the Ipsos Reid exit poll is that the Conservatives did well among Jewish voters in the 2011 election but that they did poorly among Canadian Muslims. Among Jewish voters, 52 per cent voted Conservative, compared to 24 per cent who voted Liberal and only 16 per cent who voted NDP. The Harper government has courted Jewish voters by offering uncritical support for Israel, replacing the more balanced policy toward Israel of previous Liberal administrations.

Jewish voters have in the past been strong supporters of the Liberals, but Conservatives have been eating into that support for several elections. It is worth noting, however, that Jewish voters are not of one mind because almost half of them did not vote Conservative in 2011.

Christian fundamentalists

There is another reason for the Conservatives to be cheerleaders for Israeli government policies. A committed fringe element of Christian fundamentalists is the Christian Zionists, who believe that Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled by the creation of Israel and its hegemony in the Middle East. In supporting Israel’s government, the Conservatives play to both Christian fundamentalists and some Jewish voters. Early during the election campaign a series of gatherings occurred in four Canadian cities. They were thinly disguised political events and featured former Conservative MPs Stockwell Day and Jim Abbott among their guest speakers, and they supported Israeli government actions at every turn.

Conservatives and Israel

We can expect more of the same from the Conservatives regarding Israel. Following the election in May, Prime Minister Harper stood alone among G8 leaders meeting in France in his opposition to the release of a joint statement calling on the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution on the basis of Israel’s borders before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Harper is isolating Canada internationally and he also forfeits the vote of Muslim Canadians, but that is a price he appears prepared to pay. Among those Canadian voters who identified as Muslims, only 12 per cent voted Conservative. Significantly, 46 per cent of them voted Liberal in an election where the party’s vote dropped to historic lows.

The NDP received 38 per cent of the Muslim vote, and presumably the party will attempt to improve on that performance. There are three times as many Muslims as there are Jews in Canada, but the Muslim groups are not as well established and influential as those of the Jewish population. Christians, of course, account for the bulk of the Canadian population. Statistics Canada reports that more than 75 per cent of Canadians identify themselves as Christians.

Political polarization

A fourth observation regarding the Ipsos Reid exit poll deals with the growing political polarization between voters who identify as religious and those who say they have no religion. The Conservatives drew the support of 50 per cent of those voters who said they attended a church or temple at least once a week. The NDP received the support of only 24 per cent of that group.

Many polls taken at different times in both Canada and the US indicate that regular church attenders are more likely to vote Conservative (or Republican) than are people who attend a church less often. The reasons why would merit a chapter on their own but likely mean that people in closely knit groups tend to influence one another in voting behaviour, in this case in a conservative direction. On the other hand, the NDP won the vote of 42 per cent of the “no religion” group of voters in the 2011 election, while the Conservatives received only 27 per cent of that vote.

The coming polarization promises to be both religious and political. The NDP is a social democratic party that trends to the left of the Liberals and certainly to the left of the Conservatives. It has a strong base among people who profess no religion, as well as considerable support among those religionists — Protestant, Catholic, and other — who attend church less often. The Conservatives have strong support among frequent attenders, particularly Evangelical Protestants, Christian fundamentalists, and Jews.

Abortion debate

Some suggest that Harper is more of a social than a religious conservative. He promised during the 2011 campaign that he would not allow the abortion debate to be reopened and he appears to have put the issue of same-sex marriage behind him in the previous Parliament.

It is worth noting, however, that Conservative backbenchers continued to bring forward private member’s bills that could curtail a woman’s right to abortion. We can expect religious conservatives to keep applying pressure, even as they continue to support Harper as their preferred alternative.

I received, by way of example, an automated telephone call late in the campaign from Jim Hughes, chairman of the Campaign Life Coalition, asking me to support the Conservative candidate in an Ottawa riding. Shortly after the election in May, a National March for Life event drew about 10,000 people to Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Their clear message to the Harper government was that the abortion debate is on again.

No action on poverty

Religious progressives should not expect to see action from this government on abolishing poverty, mitigating climate change, or pursuing nuclear deterrence, which are issues promoted by some mainstream religious groups. They, too, will have to decide on their strategies. The next four years promise to be intense, and progressives — religious and secular — will have to decide how to respond if, as expected, Harper attempts to move the country sharply to the right.

Election 2011, political and religious polarization

By Dennis Gruending

Jason Kenney and Msgr. Patrick PowersStephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

Continue reading Election 2011, political and religious polarization

Truth to Power — The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk

By Dennis Gruending

truth_to_power_cover_275.jpgI return to Saskatchewan every summer to visit friends and relatives and usually I drop in at St. Peter’s Abbey near Humboldt. I attended boarding school there in the 1960s and I retain a respect and fondness for the Benedictine monks. I spent several hours on my 2008 visit with Father Andrew Britz, the former editor of the Prairie Messenger, a newspaper published by the monks since 1904. Andrew, ill with Parkinson’s disease, asked if I would work with him to compile an anthology of his best writing during a long tenure as editor between 1983 and 2004. Our collaboration has resulted in a book called Truth to Power: The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk, which has been released by Kingsley Publishing of Calgary.

The book delves into debates and issues that have raged in Canadian church and society for the past twenty-five years: birth control, abortion, euthanasia, priestly celibacy, ordination of women, the church’s treatment of homosexuals, fundamentalism, ecumenism, sexual abuse, economic injustice, environmental abuse, and militarism. Andrew was, and remains, deeply committed to his church but he was fearless in speaking truth to popes and prime ministers, capitalists and clerics. His efforts were often not appreciated by those in power, not to mention some of his more traditional readers. There were discreet and at times public complaints about him to his abbot but Andrew’s monastic community protected him and allowed him to speak courageously. He called the church to a new age in the service of humanity.
Continue reading Truth to Power — The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk

Demographic winter and the religious right

By Dennis Gruending nonie_darwish_250.jpgRecently I received an email message urging me to read and then pass it along if I want to save Western civilization. The subject line said: Joys of A Muslim Woman: A MUST READ. Actually, it was not about joy at all but was an alarmist rant against Muslims. It was also an example of a recent fetish about “demographic winter”, which has become a favourite preoccupation with the religious right in the United States and to some extent in Canada. The message that I received provides material drawn from an author named Nonie Darwish.  She is of Egyptian heritage and her father was a senior officer in the Egyptian army until the Israelis killed him in 1956. Nonie moved to the U.S. in 1978 and became an evangelical Christian. She has written several books and has become prominent on the right wing lecture circuit and media. She is also founder of a group called Arabs For Israel and director of another called Former Muslims United.

One of Darwish’s books is called Cruel and Unusual Punishment:The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law. Her American publisher describes it as “a wake up call to the Western world.” The book blurb continues as follows: “Nonie Darwish presents an insider’s look at sharia and examines how radical Muslim laws are destroying the Western world from within . . . Heed this warning: sharia law is attempting to infiltrate Western culture and destroy democracy.” The viral message I received contained much the same admonition. Continue reading Demographic winter and the religious right

Some churches oppose Obama on health care

By Dennis Gruending

Some churches oppose President Obama on healthcare

 

President Barack Obama appeared on national television recently to promote his plan for reforming the American  health care system. He is involved in a high stakes contest against the massive American health insurance lobby and its political friends among Republicans, but also some so-called Blue Dog Democrats who are opposed to reform. Obama is not proposing a publicly-administered, single-payer system such as we have in Canada (which, it appears would be too much for Americans to accept) but rather a patchwork of private and public insurance that would assure coverage to everyone, including those 47 million American who lack it entirely. The provision of health care to citizens is an ethical as well as a political issue and one would expect that churches and religious organizations would have something to say about it. Continue reading Some churches oppose Obama on health care

Bishops clear Development and Peace on Lifesite allegations

By Dennis Gruending

Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and PeaceCanada’s bishops have rejected allegations that the Catholic aid agency Development and Peace (D&P) provides money to organizations or projects in Mexico that promote abortion. The bishops created D&P in 1967 to support projects in poor countries and to undertake development education in Canada and two bishops sit on D&P’s board. The string of accusations began on March 11 when a web-based publication called Lifesite News claimed that D&P “is funding groups in Mexico that are pressuring the Mexican government to legalize abortion.”  LifeSite carried more than 45 articles on the topic between March and June of 2009. In April the CCCB announced that two Canadian bishops would lead an inquiry to Mexico to investigate the Lifesite allegations. The seven-person group also included the CCCB general secretary, an official from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and three people from D&P. The delegation met with representatives of the Mexican bishops’ conference and with groups that had been accused by Lifesite of promoting abortion.

On June 29, the CCCB released its report. In an accompanying statement, CCCB president Archbishop James Weisgerber summarized the inquiry’s key finding in the following manner: “The Committee of Inquiry has determined that the projects funded by Development and Peace did not promote abortion, and that the five Mexican organizations do not support abortion … the allegations by LifeSiteNews.com against Development and Peace are unfounded.” Weisgerber added that while the inquiry cleared the organization, the bishops would have “a full discussion” regarding D&P’s policies and practices at the CCCB’s annual meeting in October 2009.

D&P, in a statement issued on March 20, had denied Lifesite’s allegations but said that its Mexican partners were involved in a nation-wide consultation on the human rights situation, and were contributors (along with 100 other organizations) to an omnibus document on human rights issues. Other civil society groups participating in the exercise brought forward concerns that did relate to family planning even though that was not the focus of D&P’s partner groups. Lifesite seized on the existence of this document and other information it claimed to have as the basis for its allegations. The CCCB, in its report, said that the Mexican organizations assisted by D&P were “imprudent in signing the report in question”, but that their major preoccupation was to work for human rights. The bishops said that D&P should be “more vigilant” in analyzing requests from possible partners. The bishops also suggested that while their relationship with D&P is a good one, the organization should consult more closely with the bishops, particularly the two who sit on its board of directors.

Lifesite says report a “whitewash”

LifeSite responded defiantly on its website to the inquiry report: “This story is not over,” LifeSite said. “Many bishops have withheld funding from D&P over this and the CCCB report has not yet changed that, and we suspect that it won’t. Because it is a whitewash, the report will cause even greater scandal.” Lifesite’s web publication is a creation of the Campaign Life Coalition, which describes itself as the “political wing of the pro-life movement in Canada.” Lifesite staff share an office with Campaign Life in Toronto but Lifesite also lists a Pittsburgh address for itself and a many of its articles deal with American matters. LifeSite also said the inquiry team assembled by the bishops was not competent to investigate the allegations and that D&P personnel who accompanied the group “led the bishops in their investigations”. The bishops indicated in their report, however, that the D&P personnel organized travel and other arrangements but had no hand in writing the report.

The bishops’ report also appealed to the people behind Lifesite to “establish an open and fruitful dialogue” with the bishops and other Catholic groups. “Negative actions of this kind,” the report says, “encourage suspicion, scandal and division in the Church.” Finally, the CCCB report urged Canadian bishops, and the leadership of social justice and pro-life groups “to recognize there is a continuum and integrity to all human life issues  . . .  there is an urgency to all that threatens the dignity and sacredness of human life, including violence, hunger, poverty and oppression.” This was an appeal to everyone, including bishops, not to be selective in choosing any one issue as being of ultimate importance, as Lifesite continues to do with its emphasis on abortion and contraception and its willfully ignoring issues relating to poverty and human rights.

Lifesite’s continuing attacks have placed both D&P and the bishops on the defensive.  The signal from the CCCB is that the bishops will place D&P under the microscope. There is nothing unusual about this since the CCCB has long made it a practice to focus attention on one or two of its departments or agencies at the bishops’ annual meeting – but it will likely be doing so this year in the face of continuing negative attacks on D&P by Lifesite and its supporters. Lifesite has been emboldened by the belief that it has succeeded in creating division among the bishops. The CCCB has also placed itself into a position of requesting dialogue with an organization that many bishops have long considered to be on the church’s extremist fringe, and one that has no official status as a Catholic organization.

Archbishop Weisgerber, in a June 19 interview with Salt + Light television, expressed his frustration that the bishops’ integrity and their teaching authority was being challenged by a group of mostly unknown and self-appointed people from Lifesite. “There’s a big issue there,” Weisgerber said. “It seems that there is a tendency on the part of some people to trust allegations on websites more than they trust the bishops.”

More than a Catholic matter

The controversy may appear to be an internal Catholic matter (it has received virtually no coverage in the mainstream media) but it has broader implications. The nature of Lifesite’s attacks could well hamper the way in which D&P conducts is development work in poor countries. Lifesite insists that agencies described as Catholic should be prohibited from being involved in projects related to family planning of any kind, including contraception – and that Catholic groups be prohibited from associating with other organizations who are so involved. Such a policy, if enacted, would prevent Catholic groups from working for justice in many circumstances. This would be a victory for the Catholic right and would signal a return to a form of triumphalism that was supposedly discarded by Vatican II in the 1960s. Accepting this protocol would also set back the cause of women’s rights by decades and place Catholic organizations in the company of some of the world’s most religiously fundamentalist regimes.

It is worth noting, as well, that Lifesite strongly supported George W. Bush’s decision to refuse American support for international aid programs that dealt in any way with abortion or contraception. Bush was providing payback to the religious right for its political support. Lifesite has been particularly hostile toward President Barack Obama who moved quickly after his 2008 election to strike down Bush’s prohibition.

There are a growing number of areas in contemporary society where the religious right is having a negative impact on international development, and Lifesite’s attack upon D&P for its work in poor countries is one such example.

Development and Peace under attack by Catholic right

By Dennis Gruending

Archbishop James WeisgerberThe Canadian Catholic aid agency Development and Peace (D&P) has come under attack recently from right wing Catholics in English Canada and the United States. The allegations, frequently repeated, became something of a feeding frenzy beginning in March. The claim is that D&P provides money to non-government organizations in Mexico that condone and promote abortions in that country. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) felt the heat as well and sent a delegation to Mexico to investigate. The report is now in and although it has not yet been released officially CCCB’s president Archbishop James Weisgerber says there is no substance to the allegations. The investigation won’t satisfy Catholic rightists, whose aim is not merely to criticize D&P but rather to deal it a mortal blow.

The bishops created D&P in 1967 to support projects in poor countries and to undertake development education in Canada. This spring, for example, D&P committed $600,000 to emergency relief for Sri Lankan Tamils who had fled a war zone to settle in government-run camps. D&P also contributed $100,000 to help meet the needs of people displaced by fighting in northwest Pakistan. D&P delivers its programs through partner organizations on the ground in recipient countries and raises much of its money from a collection taken in Catholic churches on a Sunday during Lent.

Attacks began in March

The attacks on D&P began in March and were obviously timed to coincide with the Share Lent collection. A web-based publication called LifeSiteNews.com, published at least 45 articles critical of D&P in just over three months. The site claims that its “investigative reporters” have discovered a “widespread scandal” involving D&P and it was this: “[The] official agency of the Canadian Catholic Bishops has been funding pro-abortion groups.” Interestingly, D&P says that when it checked with its Mexican partners they indicated that no reporter, investigative or other, had contacted them to ask about what they were alleged to have done. LifeSite has also produced a five-minute video that, it says, provides “undeniable evidence” that supports its allegations. LifeSite is a creation of the Campaign Life Coalition, which describes itself as the “political wing of the pro-life movement in Canada.” The website staff share an office with Campaign Life in Toronto but the website also lists a Pittsburgh address for itself.

In subsequent articles, LifeSite reported that some bishops, including Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins, were withholding funds from D&P based on LifeSite’s allegations. D&P issued a statement on March 20 denying the charges and pledging its fidelity to the church and its teaching. D&P said that its partners had been involved in a nation-wide consultation by the United Nations on the human rights situation in Mexico, and were contributors (along with 100 other organizations) to an omnibus document on human rights issues. D&P’s partners were primarily concerned with indigenous people’s rights, protection of the environment, fair wages and fair trade, and the promotion of equality between women and men. Other participating civil society groups brought forward their own concerns, D&P said. “Of course, neither we, nor our partners, have any control over the content or recommendations advanced by these other groups…” This account of events is similar to one that was provided to D&P by its Mexican partners, who were no doubt surprised and distressed by the controversy perpetrated in North America.

Bishops’ inquiry

The CCCB announced in April that two Canadian bishops would lead an inquiry into the LifeSite allegations. The group visited Mexico from April 15-18 and there the Canadian bishops met with representatives of the Mexican Episcopal conference, as well as with senior representatives of D&P’s partner organizations. The CCCB announced in Ottawa on June 18 that it had received the Committee of Inquiry’s report, which would be sent to all bishops before being made public. Archbishop Weisgerber, no doubt anticipating another LifeSite assault, promptly appeared on a Catholic television channel to say that the allegations had proven to be false.

LifeSite and its fellow travellers have not won the day but they have managed to sow confusion and mistrust  — and it’s not the first time. What, really, is going on here? At one level, it is obvious that they have chosen one issue as the litmus test of defining who is a real Catholic and who is not. LifeSite and its fellow travellers exhibit little or no interest in other questions — the whole cloth of life and constructive engagement with the world, with people of other religions or of none, in the service of the common good. There is virtually no mention, for example, in any of LifeSite’s articles about the numerous development projects supported by D&P — and what mention there is simply accuses D&P of being leftist or a dupe of feminists. One might describe such a mindset as that of a Catholic Taliban.

Template for attacks

Father Alphonse de Valk, the editor of another web-based publication called Catholic Insight, provides an insider’s description of the strategy used to attack D&P (and by extension on many of the bishops). De Valk is a veteran of the abortion wars and a frequent critic of the bishops, accusing them in particular of failing to support the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, which forbade Catholics to use contraceptives in planning their families. LifeSite carried a lengthy article by de Valk on April 16 and later he ran it in his own publication. De Valk concludes his piece by saying: “Let D&P rest in peace for eternity.” De Valk’s animus goes well beyond his anti-abortion position. He accuses D&P of harboring “a political ideology of the left, even more so than by its Catholic religious motivation.” He appears scornful of attempts by the church to become involved in broadly defined issue of justice, describing those efforts as offering “a secular messianism through economic and political activism.”

De Valk describes LifeSite’s success in a previous campaign forcing D&P to withdraw its support from the World March for Women in the year 2000. He describes the march as “a radical, feminist, anti-life and anti-family event.” Others have described it as an attempt by women around the world to advocate for the elimination of poverty and a more fair distribution of wealth among nations and between men and women. De Valk also describes how LifeSite’s campaign in 2000 succeeded in creating divisions among Canadian bishops. “It was the first time since Vatican II that Canada’s bishops broke ranks publicly,” he writes.

The campaign against the women’s march in 2000 has become a template for that being waged against D&P today. D&P is attacked by a flurry of articles on LifeSite for its alleged involvements. The method of attack is repitition and guilt by association – to accuse D&P of supporting everything that any organization with which it has contact might support. LifeSite uses its platform to vilify D&P, and attack (in a more guarded fashion) any bishop who supports the organization. Those bishops unhappy with D&P or its endeavours are given positive publicity.

To engage or retreat

A Catholic organization should, by LifeSite’s criterion, be prevented from participating in any project that is not explicitly Catholic in its values and approach. In other words, Catholic organizations should not be involved in anything that the church does not direct or control. This rigid triumphalism is entirely contrary to Vatican II, which promoted engagement in the world with people of other religions and people of good will. To place this mentality in a Canadian context, Catholic organizations should not participate in any project with the United Church of Canada because that church does not subscribe to Catholic positions on abortion or contraception, not to mention women’s ordination. This example is not at all far-fetched. De Valk calls in his article for the Catholic bishops to reconsider their participation in KAIROS – the Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

Archbishop Weisgerber, in his television interview, indicated that he understands the radically reduced model of church that is being promoted. “The leadership of the Catholic Church wants the church involved with other people,” he said, “even people who don’t agree with us, provided that the disagreement that they have with us not be supported in any way or be given umbrage by our presence there.”

The great misfortune here would be to have the church retreat from engagement into a judgemental and sterile ghetto. In fact, this is already beginning to happen. Some Catholics, including bishops, have chided Amnesty International for supporting family planning as a woman’s right and the organization has had to curtail its clubs and fund raising activities in certain Catholic schools. Other Catholic schools have reportedly cancelled fundraisers for the Stephen Lewis Foundation because Lewis promotes the distribution of condoms to combat the spread of AIDS.

In the case of Mexico, D&P and the bishops are now left to pick up the pieces and attempt to put them back together while their detractors plot their next campaign.

Cardinal Turcotte stirs abortion debate

By Dennis Gruending

cardinal_turcotte_225.jpg Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte has waded into Canada’s federal election campaign by returning his Order of Canada medal in protest against Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s receiving a similar award in July. Morgentaler went to prison in the 1970s for providing women with abortions in free-standing clinics and without permission from hospital abortion committees. The courts later overturned both Morgentaler’s conviction and the existing laws. Turcotte, who is also the Roman Catholic archbishop of Montreal, received his Order of Canada title in 1996. He is asking Canadians to consider the abortion question before voting in the October 14th election.

Nothing has changed recently in Canada’s abortion law or policy but some have used the Morgentaler award in an attempt to breathe new life into an old campaign. A few individuals, including B.C. priest Father Lucien Larre, have returned their medals. It occurs that, years earlier, Larre had been charged and convicted for physical assault against a teenager in a group home that he operated. There has also been a protest in front of the Governor General’s residence and individuals have signed on line petitions calling for Morgentaler’s award to be rescinded.

The precedent that the Cardinal is setting could come back to embarrass his church. The next time that a Catholic cleric receives the Order of Canada (or some other public recognition) might we expect other citizens to organize a symbolic protest against such an award because of the many cases of sexual abuse that have been prosecuted against Catholic clergy? Might we see a protest against such an award because of the church’s unwavering position that it is sinful for women to use most available means of birth control in order to plan the size of their families? It could well happen.

Turcotte made his announcement on September 11, just a few days before the Canadian Conference of Catholic bishops issued a competent but rather tepid document called Federal Election 2008 Guide – a text that is now certain to be overshadowed by the Cardinal’s action. The bishops in their document frame the political choices that Catholics should make under the heading of “Respect for the life and dignity of the human person.” Life, they say, must be protected at all stages, “from conception to death, no matter the circumstances” — and, as always, they grant the status of personhood to the embryo and fetus. Other instances of choosing life, they say, include being present to people with disabilities and those who are elderly, ill, poor or suffering; promoting peace and ending violence as a way to resolve conflicts; and encouraging policies that help people balance their family and work responsibilities. They also talk about a “preferential option for the poor”, the environment, and the war in Afghanistan, but their analysis is vague and their recommendations timid.

Regarding the war they simply say, “our country has a serious responsibility to do everything possible to encourage dialogue leading to peace.” While that is true, it sidesteps the more delicate questions of whether Canada should be in Afghanistan at all, and when we should leave. The war has now taken almost 100 Canadian lives and those of many more Afghan civilians. Even the prime minister, if one is to take him at his word, now says that Canada should not remain beyond 2011.

In December 2007, Rev. Paul Hansen, then the board chair of the ecumenical group KAIROS, accused the Canadian Catholic church of having  “abdicated its responsibility to speak about Canada’s largest military endeavour since the Korean war.”  Hansen said that Catholics sitting on the KAIROS board were not showing up at important meetings, including one discussing an ecumenical response to the panel led by former politician John Manley regarding Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

Rather than demonizing the 85-year-old Dr. Morgentaler, Cardinal Turcotte could have chosen to make a prophetic statement by returning his medal to protest against Canada’s continuing involvement in Afghanistan; or the federal government’s walking away from the previously negotiated Kelowna Accord, which would have made major investments in Aboriginal education and housing; or the government’s refusal to abide by the rulings of an environmental panels regarding mega-projects in the tar sands.

Most Canadians simply will not support the recriminalization of abortion, which is the logical result of what the Cardinal and others are demanding.  Such a move would represent an unacceptable encroachment upon the lives of individual women. Many people, however, would like to see the number of abortions reduced. The question is how best to do that in a way that does not penalize women. It would best be accomplished by pursuing a range of social and economic policies that would support women and families. This could include a higher minimum wage, better maternity and paternity benefits, improved child care and housing programs, more supportive labour legislation and any number of other initiatives. It would also be refreshing if our political leaders would, as Barack Obama has done, speak out clearly about the responsibilities of fathers in families.

Finally, on the topic of good election analysis and guides to action, I would recommend material being produced and distributed by Citizens for Public Justice, a small but engaged ecumenical organization.