“I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor!” Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)
While sections of Evangelii Gaudium have received considerable attention in the media (“I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets.”), acute observations on politics and politicians have been overlooked. Many of these are instructive for Canadians as we enter a federal election year.
While recognizing that politics “remains a lofty vocation ... inasmuch as it seeks the common good,” Pope Francis notes that human dignity and the pursuit of the common good sometimes “seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true or integral development.”
This observation resonates in Canada where reference to “the common good” has all but disappeared from the political lexicon, replaced by the specific demands of retail politics wherein Canada’s major political parties increasingly direct policies and energies to particular interests, especially those of the so-called middle class.
This is in direct contrast to the plea by Pope Francis for political leaders to “broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and health care.”
Pope Francis asks God for “more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots — and not simply the appearances — of the evils in our world.” The Pope emphasizes “structural causes.”
This highlights the divisiveness that characterizes contemporary Canadian political discourse wherein the notion of addressing root causes is scorned as “committing sociology” or soft on crime, while ever more vengeful criminal code provisions are enacted that can address only symptoms — but push the hot buttons of the angry or the fearful.
The pope’s concern for a just “distribution of goods” and the “structural causes of inequality” illuminates a Canada of startling inequity according to recent studies: the top 10 per cent of Canadians control 47.9 per cent of the wealth while the bottom 30 per cent of Canadians account for 0.8 of all wealth.
The pope’s references to “defending the dignity of the powerless,” to a God who “demands a commitment to justice,” and to “casual indifference in the face of such questions,” finds in Canada an obstinate refusal by the federal government to call a national inquiry on the nearly 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women over the past thirty years. At the same time, many Aboriginal communities in wealthy Canada are mired in unimaginable 30 that has drawn international condemnation.
Pope Francis recalls Christ’s identification with the poor: “This reminds us Christians that we are called to care for the vulnerable of the earth.” Further, “I exhort all countries to a genuine openness (to migrants and refugees) which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis.”
In a world awash with millions of refugees, Canada’s federal government devotes much attention to keeping people out, and cuts to refugee health care has been denounced by health providers including Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, and cited as “cruel” and “harmful” by a Federal Court Justice.” While Statistics Canada’s recent report, Population Projections for Canada, illustrates that our birth rate continues to decline, we accepted only 238,000 immigrants last year. This in the second largest country on earth which has less that one half of one per cent of the world’s population.
The pope speaks of the “indiscriminate exploitation” of the earth and reminds us of our stewardship responsibilities: “Christians are called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live.” To suggest that Canada has anything remotely resembling a coherent national environmental policy is laughable given the lack of commitment and leadership at the federal level, and the absence of any consequential co-ordination among the provinces and the national government. The federal government has made it abundantly clear that immediate economic growth will not be put at risk by environmental initiatives.
Pope Francis refers “with particular love and concern” for the unborn, “the most defenceless and innocent among us,” and states that “we cannot resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done very little to accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as quick solution to their profound anguish.”
Canada is the only western nation, and one of the very few on earth, without some form of restrictions on when abortions can be performed (a distinction we share with North Korea). None of Canada’s political parties is prepared to address this situation. In spite of the presence in the governing Conservative Party of a number of incumbent MPs who have built successful political careers on pro-life advocacy, and who frequent pro-life rallies, these same MPs apparently see no contradiction in loyally inhabiting a party that is explicitly against opening the abortion issue and notably adverse about accompanying those in difficult situations.
As Canadians living in a free and democratic society, we clearly have an obligation to accept the political and social responsibilities a healthy democracy requires. We can begin by contemplating how far we are removed in Canada from what the pope recalls as our Christian obligations and by devising appropriate responses including: to demand of those who would lead something more than cynical promise-a-day, niche marketing of specific policies to selected groups; to demand consideration of the Gospel imperatives of concern for the defenceless and poor, and of our responsibilities to each other as Canadians and to the two-thirds of the planet that live in poverty; to demand an intelligible vision of what this nation stands for including systematic plans for compassionate health care for an aging population, coherent socioeconomic strategies to address the root causes of Aboriginal desolation, youth unemployment and income disparities; to demand responsible approaches to the environment that involve what the Canadian Catholic bishops have defined as “choices that go beyond short-term interests.”
In a nation that is among the most blessed on the planet in terms of physical size and natural resources, our obligations as both citizens and Christians compel us to settle for nothing less.
Downey is president of St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, and chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada.