Canadian politicians, who are you, really?

“I’m a good Catholic, but I disagree with the pope.”

There have been Roman Catholic Christians differing with papal pronouncements for centuries, but the modern watershed moment occurred in 1968. Shortly after the remarkable innovations of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a not-so-reformist Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (“Human Life”) to forbid Catholics from using artificial means of birth control.

Coming almost a decade after “the pill” was approved in the United States (1960), this command proved quickly to be too hard for many Catholics to obey. Millions, not just a few here and there, began to think of themselves as good Catholics even as they flatly defied an authoritative teaching from Rome.

Ever since then, and now in Canadian federal politics, we are encountering Catholics who say they are, indeed, good Catholics but they refuse to follow Catholic teachings. What are voters to make of this, particularly when the leaders of our two major political parties, Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer, are of this sort?

It’s one thing to say that one is a faithful Catholic and yet on this or that matter one disagrees with Catholic teaching: “I otherwise subscribe to Catholic doctrine, but on abortion I hold a different view.”

That’s not what Catholics are supposed to say. Papal authority is basic to being Catholic, according to the Catholic Catechism (paragraphs 874-913). So there is a problem of consistency here—“I’m a good Catholic, which by definition means I submit to the authority of the pope, but I don’t actually submit to the authority of the pope in at least one major instance”—but at least we have clarity.

It’s also okay to say, “I’m a good Catholic, but I don’t see the time being right to move ahead with a bill on abortion. The votes won’t be there, so I think we need to attend to other matters crucial to Catholic values and see if we can fight the abortion battle another, better day.” In fact, that’s very okay. That’s the kind of realism we can appreciate in a politician.

Neither situation, however, is the case with Catholics Trudeau and Scheer. Instead, we have a different distinction. Either implicitly (Trudeau) or explicitly (Scheer), we have people who claim to (still) be Catholics, and yet who promise never to support Catholic teaching regarding abortion in Parliament because, they say, the “Canadian people” don’t want them to deal with abortion, so they won’t.

Three problems here.

First, the problem of fact. Polls show that most Canadians are not, in fact, happy with there being no law at all regarding abortion—a situation so bizarre, in fact, that no other democracy lacks such a law.

Second, the problem of contradiction: “I’m a good Catholic and I’m not going to obey Catholic teachings.” One wonders, then, what any of their other self-descriptions might mean in terms of actual legislative practice: “I’m a defender of the environment but I’m not going to do anything about X” or “I’m a feminist but I’m not going to Y” or “I’m all for financial responsibility but I won’t support Z.”

Third, the problem of misunderstanding the basic nature of Parliament. If politicians are going to shelve their views—even views on literal life-and-death issues such as abortion—and follow public opinion, then…we don’t need politicians. We can all log on each evening, survey the legislative agenda for the day as arranged by, say, some Grand Chairperson we elected to the post, and then vote.

This is the difference between direct democracy and what we are supposed to have in Canada, representative  democracy. Our politicians are supposed to be the people whom we elect to sit in long meetings, pore over long documents, participate in long conversations, and give long thinks to issues the rest of us are too busy to consider properly.

If we don’t like what they decide or how they decided it, we replace them in the next election. But they aren’t supposed to be mere mouthpieces for the popular vote. In the Internet age, we don’t need anyone for that.

This principle makes election campaigns, and particularly candidate debates, so critical. We need to find out who is the person—for our riding and for the leader’s chair—whose values and abilities and character equip him or her to make better decisions than will his or her rivals.

So if Messrs. Trudeau and Scheer say they are good Catholics, and they really are, then if we know what a good Catholic is, we now know important things about them. Same with Mr. Singh if he is as observant a Sikh as his turban-wearing is supposed to indicate that he is. Same with Ms. May if Jesus Christ really is her personal hero, as she recently averred.

“I’m a good Catholic, but—” is therefore a huge problem. It is as if Mr. Blanchet of the Bloc Québecois were to say, “I’m a separatist, but I won’t support any legislation toward separation because most Quebecers currently don’t want it.” If he does this strategically, biding his time until the tide turns, fair enough. But if he is content to completely disengage his personal views from his policies in order to give the voters whatever they currently want, then what good is he?

What good are any of them?

That’s what we need to find out. Fast.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).