Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once famously likened living next to the United States to “sleeping with an elephant.”
Trudeau, the father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was suggesting that for a country the size of Canada, with a current population of 38 million, our cheek-by-jowl proximity to the United States, with a population almost 10 times the size, makes it impossible to not be affected by–or share in–the movements of the land to the south of us.
That includes, for example, the increasingly nasty tone of public discourse, especially in politics. The tone that began to emerge in the United States in about 2015 and grew to horrify so many either crept north or, more likely, empowered local views previously kept under wraps because they were deemed unseemly. With civility out the window, too many Canadian politicians of all stripes, particularly women politicians, have now suffered not only verbal harassment but forms of physical aggression, too. Thus, we watch American trends and wait to see what will make its way north.
It has been particularly upsetting to see American priests and members of the Church hierarchy blur the line between reiterating Church teachings and engaging in partisan politics. Some have gone so far as to suggest–subsidiarity be damned!–that Catholics risk eternal damnation depending on how they vote. Any such suggestion clearly contradicts the notion of freedom of conscience and undermines the effort to work effectively toward the common good, which relates to people at all stages of life rather than to any one topic. It was, therefore, almost old news when the rallying cry for Trudeau the Younger to be denied Communion began in some corners of Canada, given his position on various contentious issues.
Thus, I was relieved to see timely statements from many American bishops in response to the Republican stunt of transporting migrants arriving in the southern United States to places like Martha’s Vineyard, long a vacation spot for the likes of the Obamas and the Clintons. It is not hard to imagine self-congratulatory party members chuffed with glee over a stunt they perceived to be so witty, so apt, in spite of its very attack on the dignity of the human person.
But then Rhode Island’s Bishop Joseph Tobin tweeted that “the baby in the womb, the refugee in Cape Cod – neither should be exploited for political points.” And San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller likened the move to “human trafficking,” adding that, “to use migrants and refugees as pawns offends God, destroys society and shows how low individuals can (stoop) for personal gains”.
I am wondering how Republican Catholics received these episcopal statements. A recent survey by Pew Research suggests half of registered Republicans identify as Catholic. Another poll, designed to ask Republicans their response to the ferrying of migrants to states perceived as liberal, suggests a full two-thirds of Republicans support the idea. Regardless of the various possible mathematical breakdowns, the two polls suggest a significant number of Catholics approved of the migrant shipments, in spite of Church leaders speaking out–not in a partisan, cult-of-the-politician way, but in a style that reflects classic Catholic Social Teaching.
It made me hopeful that our Canadian bishops will increasingly become more vocal not on politics itself but on any kind of decision, be it societal or governmental, that attacks the common good and the dignity of the person. While some bishops spoke up in the early days of residential school gravesites being uncovered, far too many remained silent, seemingly waiting for someone else to speak first. Catholics in pews witnessed a Church we had always thought of as universal suddenly hiding behind local dioceses when questions arose of apologies or reparation for the harms done to families torn apart by the residential school system. While the former has now been voiced by the Pope himself, during his visit to Canada this past summer, the latter is still a confusing mess to many of us, weighed down by–surprise!–internal politics. There is a great deal of work still to be done in opening archives, arranging reparation payments and listening to the intergenerational trauma that the Church still needs to address and help ease.
Leadership calls for courage, and there are likely many American Catholics who disagree with those bishops who have taken a stand and spoken up on an ongoing basis about how welcoming the stranger and caring for those in need–especially children facing deplorable conditions–is essential gospel teaching we need to embrace. I applaud these men for finding ways to respond to challenging political issues without getting political about it.
Those of us north of the 49th parallel would welcome this trend creeping in our direction.
Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.