Biden, Amess, and us


By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

As American Catholics wage war over President Joe Biden’s faith—conservatives bemoaning his insufficient ardour on reproductive life issues and progressives trumpeting his command of Catholic Social Teaching—many of their bishops are inclined to punish the President by finding ways to exclude him from receiving the Eucharist. Meanwhile, Pope Francis and like-minded prelates in Rome welcome the President, warn that using communion as a punishment or reward is theologically aberrant, and caution their American counterparts on the need for pastoral prudence.

And all this plays out full scale in the media: photoshoots in the Vatican, news commentary, and warring op-ed pieces in the national dailies. Not quite “breaking news” but clear fodder for pundits, zealots, spin doctors and nervous chancery officials. 

In England, meanwhile, the nation mourns the loss of one of its longest-serving and most-respected Members of Parliament, Sir David Amess. Murdered while meeting with many of his constituents in his office in his South West riding in Essex. He was stabbed several times by a young man for reasons that are not yet apparent but that the authorities are examining for terrorist motivation.

The death of Sir David shocked the nation, and media coverage was immediate and comprehensive. But in addition to the social and political chatter and analyses, there was serious media interest in his Catholic faith. He was a politician of conviction, his principles of service grounded in his religious tradition, and although he didn’t wear his Catholicism on his sleeve, he was open about what nurtured his political vocation and, as a consequence, his constituents knew the man beyond the partisan script, the polished speaking points, the political brand.

The weekly journal of opinion, The Tablet, boldly declared in its leader editorial of November 1 that “there is a Catholic term for what happened to Sir David Amess: martyrdom. Doing his duty while knowing the risks, he laid down his life for others.” 

For both the British and the American electorate knowing something about the faith of their politicians is a matter of consequence, not to be ignored or trivialized. For sure, there are those whose excess of piety and political fervour will dispose them to a kind of tribalism that is unwelcome in the common political arena; the majority will benefit in knowing something about the undergirding principles that make the politician.

In Canada, by sharp contrast, we prefer to keep religious faith and spirituality well on the periphery of our public square. Why are Canadians so skittish about religious faith in the public space? The endlessly controversial, and in my view notorious, Bill 21 in Quebec legislated by the ruling provincial government, the Coalition Avenir Québec, prohibiting the wearing of religious garb or insignia by those in public service and invoking the Notwithstanding Clause to ensure its passage despite nominal opposition from several human rights organizations and federal political leaders, is a dramatic instance of not just indifference to religion but its forced marginalization. 

And now the same government is resolved to introduce a new bill replacing its mandatory public school course, “Ethics and Religious Culture,” with “Quebec Culture and Citizenship.” The overt hostility to all things religious in la belle province following the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s when Quebec radically divested itself of all things Catholic and clerical morphed over the subsequent decades into a tepid hostility but is now best described as indifference. In fact, ignorance of the religious roots of Quebec society—and not just Catholic—is now universal.

But there are many people of faith—all faiths—in positions of leadership in the government, the academy, the corporate world, etc., but they are hyper-cautious about so declaring. Religion is a strictly private matter.

But this runs counter to the very nature of religion, forces people of faith into the shadows, demarcates acceptable discourse in public settings, and establishes a culture of siege rather than an environment of openness.

The politics of faith can be ugly. The concordats of the Trump universe are suspect and divisive, the devolution of the Church of England to a cultural and historical symbol delimiting. But faith is news, religion and politics more than natural adversaries, the spiritual beliefs of the nation’s leaders worthy of public scrutiny and celebration.

Although it is true that religion did surface in the recent election—Anamie Paul’s Jewish faith, Jagmeet Singh’s Sikhism—the coverage was superficial, not substantive, as if it is impolite to enquire.

Time to get serious. 


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