The plan had been to write a post comparing the place of God and religion in Canadian and American elections, a topic that might have ended up making me sound like a smug neighbor to the north. (Full confession: these days, I probably am.) The idea was to talk about the irony of Canada being far more comfortable than the United States regarding institutional references to God while also being far less likely to involve religion in federal politics.
While the Constitution of the United States contains no overt reference to God, in keeping with the oft-cited principle of the separation of church and state, the Canadian Declaration of Rights and Freedoms states clearly in its preamble that Canada “is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”
Your national anthem celebrates military victory and profound love of the symbolism of the stars and stripes, while ours asks that “God keep our land glorious and free.” (The French transition goes even farther, with a reference to the cross.)
A friendly debate would likely raise other good-natured comparisons, but in Canada, which has two Catholics, a Sikh and a Jew as leaders of federal parties, God is not employed in the same way in our national elections as God is in the United States, where both federal parties are led by Christians; there are, for example, no unsanctioned photo ops with holy books outside places of worship north of the border.
Furthermore, while I’ve been known to fire off a letter or two of complaint to my local chancery office, I have never been subjected to a homily directing me how to vote, as has happened more than once in this American election year. Campaigning in Canada usually stops at the edge of church property and is almost never taken into the pulpit. As the most recent version of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ election guide demonstrates, the emphasis is on themes such as working to build a better society or the formation of conscience rather than on specific issues, and Canadian clergy, in my albeit limited experience, tend to respect that when at the ambo.
This had been the plan. But then I watched the final presidential debate last week and my heart was sundered by Donald Trump’s cavalier approach to the migrant children housed in detention centers and, in particular, to the 545 children whose parents cannot be found.
“They’re so well taken care of,” Trump blithely said of the children now isolated from their parents. “They’re in facilities that are so clean.”
At that moment, the notion of rather light-hearted comparisons became insensitive because I was reminded yet again of the peril of Catholics, no matter where they live, being single-issue voters.
My frustration over abortion as the preeminent election issue for Catholics, a battle long familiar to me as a Canadian Catholic voter, had been growing throughout this American election campaign given the frequent assertions I have stumbled across claiming that Donald J. Trump is a great friend to the prolife movement. And before anyone lectures me, I’m a mother of four who also lost three pregnancies. I need no lectures on when life begins. I do, however, believe that our church needs a fulsome discussion on what it means to be prolife.
There is no doubt that in a church that reverences life from conception to natural death, abortion is a key concern. But while our gaze has been trained on this one issue, look what has happened in other issues relating to life—and consider how we could help.
As of this writing, for example, nearly a quarter of a million Americans have died of coronavirus, with experts predicting as many as 400,000 thousand deaths in total by the end of the year. In contrast, there were 862,000 abortions in 2017, the last year for which figures are available, tallies that are far closer than many would recognize or admit.
Reducing the number of abortions performed is a complicated question, requiring not a legal response so much as an economic one that looks to issues ranging from full employment and adequate health care to affordable housing and accessible daycare. Abortion will likely always be with us whether legalized or not. The question is what we can do to prevent it.
But think how many lives could have been saved— quite easily— if, in the pandemic we are experiencing, people embraced the simple safeguards of hand washing, social distancing and masks. It has been suggested that a near-universal embrace of mask use could save more than 100,000 lives in the period between this past September and February 2021. A simple weapon with a significant win.
But conservative Catholics, a group particularly likely to describe themselves as prolife, are big supporters of Donald Trump, a president who has repeatedly mocked the use of masks and hidden behind his privilege rather than acknowledge publicly the dangers of this deadly virus, in spite of having freely discussed it with Bob Woodward in the now-notorious interview.
While most church leaders have been good at requiring masks for those within church walls, some have joined in the mockery, and even Pope Francis has disappointed on this point, appearing far too frequently without a mask, setting a terrible example.
Consider, too, the question of health care in the United States and the battle over the Affordable Care Act. When the Supreme Court hears the challenge to the ACA next month, millions of Americans could be at risk of losing their health care, depending on how the court rules. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that leaving millions of people struggling to find health care in the midst of a pandemic is a profound question of protecting life, one that every Catholic should be concerned about and consider while voting.
The list of prolife issues for voters should be lengthy. For example, more than half of all American states still have the death penalty on the books. As Pope Francis makes clear in Fratelli tutti, the death penalty is not only “inadmissible,” but a reality Catholics should work to end. Being prolife requires us to embrace even the most challenging of people, the most upsetting of situations and to learn the true meaning of compassion because all life, no matter how messy, how challenging, is a gift reflective of the love of God.
But it is the migrant children trapped at the border who have my attention these days. It is they who remind me of what we should mean when we talk about protecting life. We can get sidelined by debates over which administration had what policy regarding migrants at the border. We can digress by laying blame at the feet of the parents. But in the meantime, the children are suffering through no fault of their own, and if we choose to remain silent, as individuals or as a church, we are complicit.
We exist as a church because we believe in the life, death and resurrection of a migrant child. If we really believe, we need to be comfortable with the answers Christ can offer us when we ask: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?”
Do we choose our life battles by head count or do we work on many fronts at once to save lives? Only when we work to protect all life when we see it threatened can we then describe ourselves as a community that is truly prolife.
Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.