The day after Justin Trudeau was sworn in at Rideau Hall as Canada’s 23rd prime minister, I ran across the 17th Prime Minister at a charity fundraiser. Having no personal knowledge of John Turner, I made small talk while he was awaiting his drink by asking whether he had been at the swearing-in as a former Liberal prime minister.
“Yes,” he replied. “A great occasion. Great Cabinet. Democracy restored to our country.”
It was a remarkable thing for a former prime minister to say to a complete stranger. “Democracy restored to our country.” Had there been a coup?
Many apparently thought there had been. Lawrence Martin at the Globe and Mail, writing the day after the election, published a column titled “The reengineering of Canada is finally over.” Finally? It had been ten years! Conservatives are permitted to govern occasionally, of course. R.B. Bennett got five years during the Depression and then, after 22 years of Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker was given six years. Another 21 years followed his defeat before Brian Mulroney got nine years, having defeated John Turner twice, perhaps accounting for the latter’s disdain for democracy when the people get it wrong and elect Conservatives. With Mulroney, the usurpers were getting uppity: two majority governments were a little much. But Harper went further. Ten years! That hadn’t been allowed since Sir Wilfrid Laurier mended Canada’s original flaw of having a Conservative as her founding prime minister.
Martin declared that with the election, “the bold rightwing experiment ends and the traditional Canada… is reborn.” Liberal government is certainly traditional in Canada, and much of the country’s elite seems to have regarded the Harper years as ones when ill-mannered squatters had occupied the historic seigneury, keeping the lord of the manor off the estate. That the restoration of democracy was accomplished by the son of the 15th prime minister was, from this point of view, an added bonus; the heir had returned, driven out the squatters and reclaimed the family estate.
Peter Mansbridge rode along in the limousine with Trudeau on the way to the swearing-in, gushing so extravagantly at the ostentatious humility of the bus transporting the cabinet ministers to Rideau Hall that Trudeau had to remind him that lots of people take the bus to work every day. It was a nice vignette. The old money millionaire reminding the new money millionaire how ordinary people live.
Over at foreign affairs – renamed Global Affairs – the bureaucrats shrieked like schoolgirls at Trudeau’s presence as if Justin Bieber had arrived and not merely Justin the PM. The euphoria in Ottawa was enough to suggest that perhaps Stephen Harper was not entirely paranoid to think the entrenched classes viewed him as illegitimate.
As for the Conservatives, the advice from the Lawrence Martin set was consistent – become more like the Liberals and everything will be forgiven. After another 20 years, you will be entitled to a short turn. But not ten years!
Calgary is my hometown, so perhaps I was more sensitive than most to the theme that, after Preston Manning and Stephen Harper, it was time for a leader from another city, another province. Perhaps. But from 1968 to 2006, with three brief interruptions amounting to less than 18 months in total, Canada’s prime ministers were all from Montreal. It may not be the chateau clique, but the restoration of the proper order means another prime minister from Montreal. Of all the Liberal leaders going back to Trudeau père, only John Turner and Michael Ignatieff were not from Montreal, and the latter could have been as it was not clear where in Canada he called home.
Our common life does not begin and end with politics, but politics are an important part of it. I wish the new Prime Minister and his government well. In a normal country, there are competing parties for government. Perhaps under Harper, Canada achieved normality; that remains to be seen. The fact that so many thought it was a complete assault on the normal course of events suggests that there is still work to be done.
THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY AND RELIGION
I watched the final weeks of the election from Rome and was in Dublin on election day itself. The European experience has something for Canadians to learn from. The prevalence of questions about religion and identity disturbed a great many people, as there was concern that a certain identity politics was taking hold, particularly around Islam and its place in Canadian society.
In particular, there was a worry about the Conservatives’ emphasis on the niqab issue during the campaign. Previous Canadian experience with Islam in election politics was different, as it came from progressive parties. The first potent use of electoral unease with Islam in our common life was by Dalton McGuinty in 2007, when he used John Tory’s religious schools policy against him, raised the spectre of government-funded madrassahs churning out a stream of jihadis at taxpayer expense. The second instance was the Partí Québéçois, whose secular charter was aimed at harnessing popular unease with Islamic symbols. McGuinty succeeded. The PQ’s gambit failed and was widely considered to have backfired.
In the recent federal election campaign, there was much unease with the Conservative position on the niqab. A Conservative party engaging those issues gets a more visceral reaction than a progressive party largely due to the experience of recent decades in Europe. The rise of ethno-nationalist politics on the right in Europe has spread concern that such politics might come to Canada. Closer to home, the rise of a more visceral politics of immigration in the United States has led to more finely tuned antennas in Canada.
That speaks well of our political culture, it seems to me, to be that we are alert to dangers we see elsewhere. Even though the Liberals won the election, the growing reality of the politics of identity will remain with us for some time still.
Who are we? Who belongs? In Europe, there are no major issues, with the possible exception of the environment, that do not arouse the issue of identity – from sovereign debt crises to the resettlement of refugees. It’s not just about Islamic dress in public spaces. For example, one reason Europe prefers to avert its eyes from the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine is because it touches too closely on the identity of Europe and the sacrifices that might be required to defend it. Who belongs to Europe and who belongs to the Russian sphere?
Another example: October’s budget in Ireland addressed the “diaspora policy,” meaning measures to entice the Irish who left during the financial crisis to return home. But those economic measures touch upon a deeper question of identity. Who is more deserving of State inducements: the Irish who went abroad but desire to return home or those who stayed home to weather the storm?
The politics of who we are and what it means to belong are particularly delicate for a mass-immigration country such as Canada. We are almost unique in having generations of mass immigration without the creation of isolated ethnic groups threatening to the common good, which in turn leads to an anti-immigrant backlash. Yet that cannot be taken for granted. To declare all discussion of assimilation and Canadian values out of bounds does achieve a certain short-term appearance of liberal tolerance, but at the risk of medium-term resentments when such concerns find no public expression.
Discussion of immigration, refugees and cultural difference – especially when they touch upon religion in general and Islam in particular – runs the risk of generating more heat and light. It runs the risk of giving rise to enmity rather than understanding. One has to tread carefully. But it is a responsibility that leaders have to accept, because the alternative of excluding such topics from public discussion will more likely lead to the emergence of the more intemperate rhetoric not uncommon across Europe, from Dublin to Dubrovnik.
At Convivium, we have managed to have that serious discussion and, on balance, have favoured greater liberty for religious dress while also including the thoughtful and passionate arguments of, say, Barbara Kay against the niqab. There are good reasons to think Canada is capable of such a debate, even if an election campaign by nature makes it more difficult to do so serenely. The election just past introduced us to new dimensions of identity politics. In future, this will grow, not diminish. While Canadians can be satisfied, relative to the experience abroad, with how we responded, it would be unwise to be complacent.
FAITH IN CANADA 150
Faith, religion, pluralism, identity. Who belongs to Canada? Whence did we come? Where are we going? On November 5 in Toronto, Cardus launched one of its most ambitious projects: Faith in Canada 150 (www.faithin150.ca). It’s our attempt to ensure that the celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017 tells the whole story about our history, our present circumstances and our future potential. We want to ensure that the stories of religion and religious believers, essential to the very existence of Canada, are told.
“For more than 450 years, faith has shaped the human landscape of what we now call Canada,” is how my colleagues put it. “It has shaped how we live our lives, how we see our neighbours, how we fulfill our social responsibilities, how we imagine our life together. Faith has given shape to a country that stands apart in a world deeply scarred by conflict, prejudice and brutality. This is the story that Faith in Canada 150 will tell. It will nurture a public conversation that will remind us what our country is and why we live the way we do. It will allow us to say, ‘Here is Canada. Here is why faith matters.’”
We are particularly pleased at Convivium, for Faith in Canada 150 expresses a similar intuition that led us to found this magazine. Our common life includes faith, and the conversation about it belongs to our common heritage and our common future.
Our guest of honour at the launch was Kevin Vickers, Canadian Ambassador to Ireland since January 2015. Most Canadians came to know Vickers in his role as Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons. After the terror attack on Parliament on October 22, 2014, he was praised by many Canadians, including our parliamentary leaders, as a hero worthy of honour. Before his time as Sergeant-at-Arms, Vickers served for 29 years in the RCMP, retiring at the level of Chief Superintendent.
We invited Vickers to be our guest of honour because of two other titles he holds. We invited him because he is also a citizen and a believer. A man loyal to Canada and a man of faith.
Faith in Canada 150 aims to tell the story of Canada, not excluding the essential role that faith has played in Canada’s history and in the lives of Canadians. Kevin Vickers has demonstrated that serving Canada and serving God are not mutually exclusive. To understand why he has served Canada so well requires an understanding of how he first learned to serve God as a young boy in New Brunswick, learning his Catholic faith from the teaching and witness of his father.
The story of Kevin Vickers is more dramatic but not entirely different than the stories of countless Canadians who have kept Canada glorious and free for 150 years. In Vickers, we find a living embodiment of our animating principle: that you cannot understand Canada’s history, Canada’s present challenges or Canada’s potential without reference to religion and the contributions of faith-filled Canadians.
I had the occasion to meet Ambassador Vickers recently at the Canadian embassy in Dublin, and he shared with me a story that helps explain who he is and why we were pleased to have him grace our launch. Even better, he shared this same story with our guests.
During his service in the RCMP, Vickers gained a reputation for being particularly effective in obtaining confessions from those accused of murder – so much so that other interrogators would come to watch him at work. In his career, he obtained 17 such confessions. When his colleagues observed him, they were looking at his techniques and often missed the foundation of his approach, namely to respect the God-given dignity of the accused. His interrogations helped the accused arrive at the truth because he began with truth at the heart of his Biblical faith: that every man is made in the image of God, no matter how marred that image might have become by sin. Vickers was better at his job because he tried to live as best he could the teachings of his Catholic faith. That’s Faith in Canada 150.
During his years in Parliament, Vickers would lead the Speaker’s procession to open the day at the House of Commons. The Sergeant-at-Arms, dressed ceremonially, carries the mace, the symbol of the Speaker’s authority and the rights conferred by the Crown on the House of Commons to meet and propose laws to the sovereign. On the Parliament of Canada website, there is a description of the history and composition of the mace. We read there: “The head of the mace is in the shape of a crown, with the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom appearing on it in relief. Roses, shamrocks, thistles, fleurs-de-lys and maple leaves are carved on the staff.”
Which is true, as far as it goes. But it neglects to mention that the most notable item, at the very top of the mace, above the crown, is not a maple leaf or a thistle, but the Cross. What Kevin Vickers carried into the House each day was not only the heraldry of our history but a symbol of our faith. The two go together; and if we ignore one – as the parliamentary website does – we honour neither.
We all have our crosses to bear in life, and relatively speaking, the mace of the House of Commons is grander than most. Kevin Vickers, a servant of Canada and disciple of Christ, has lived a life made possible by the grandness of our history and the broad horizons of our faith. His presence was a very good sign for the success of Faith in Canada 150.
REPORT FROM THE SYNOD
Vatican officials might be inclined to skip the annual Christmas party this year. Last December, Pope Francis made global headlines for his Christmas address to his colleagues in the Roman Curia, in which he lambasted them for a comprehensive list of 15 diseases of the soul, including “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and “existential schizophrenia.” When the Holy Father visited the United States in September, he briefly hinted at a change in style, telling his brothers that “harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
By the end of October, Francis had reverted to his more customary bruising rhetoric, delivering a tongue-lashing to his brother bishops at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family. Francis had convened the synod to discuss family issues, and at the heart of the synod was a dispute about whether to modify Catholic teaching and practice regarding divorce and remarriage. For more than 18 months, Pope Francis had been signalling that he would prefer a more liberal practice while somehow maintaining in principle the indissolubility of marriage. (See "Sea to Sea," October 2015.) While the synod of bishops is only advisory, its support would create favourable conditions for the significant change Francis apparently desires.
The synod did not go quite that far, and the Holy Father was not happy about it. He closed the synod with the most scathing speech of his pontificate, denouncing some of his brother bishops for “a facile repetition of what is obvious or has already been said”; of “burying their heads in the sand”; of “indoctrinating” the Gospel “in dead stones to be hurled at others”; of hiding “behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families”; of giving in to “conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints”; of using “language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible”; of being like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son or the jealous labourers in the parable of the workers in the vineyard; perhaps suffering from a “fear of love and showing that love concretely.”
Where does that leave matters? The Synod on the Family is over. The Church now awaits what Pope Francis will decide. Those who argued at the synod for maintaining the traditional discipline on not admitting the civilly divorced and remarried to the Sacraments must prepare for the Holy Father to decide differently. He has steadily prepared the Church for just that. It would be foolish to ignore the signs.
After much back and forth, the synod decided to follow almost exactly what Pope Francis said in his general audience address of August 5, during which he strongly suggested that he did not agree with the tradition taught by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (1981) and confirmed by Benedict XVI in Sacramentum Caritatis (2007). He did not explicitly contradict it, and neither did the synod. But he quoted the relevant texts without affirming their definitive conclusion, and the synod did the same.
Does silence on John Paul’s formulation suggest assent? Or does it mean that the traditional teaching is being left aside?
A commentary by Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor-in-chief of Civiltà Cattolica, gave a clear answer. Civiltà always carries a certain authority, as the Jesuit periodical is reviewed by the Holy See secretariat of state before publication. Father Spadaro is more authoritative still as both a close confidant and mouthpiece of Pope Francis. It is inconceivable that he would write something contrary to what the Holy Father desired. In his analysis of the synod, his answer is emphatic.
“The [synod’s final report] proceeds on this path of discernment of individual cases without putting any limits on integration, as appeared in the past.… The conclusion is that the Church realizes that one can no longer speak of an abstract category of persons and close off the practice of integration within a rule that is entirely general and valid in every case. It is not said how far the process of integration can go, but neither are any more precise and insurmountable limitations set up.”
The “limits of the past” are those of Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, which was certainly “precise.” It no longer holds. And how far will this new integration go? Spadaro quotes Cardinal Christoph Schönborn to explicitly include Holy Communion for those living in invalid marriages.
Those close to the Holy Father did not wait until the synod was over to give strong indications of what outcome Pope Francis preferred. During the synod the Holy See Press Office circulated an interview conducted by Gerard O’Connell of America magazine with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. O’Connell has been covering the Vatican for some 30 years, but his relevance is now at its zenith, given that he is married to Elisabetta Piqué, the Pope’s favourite Argentinian journalist, to whom he has granted special access. If O’Connell’s name appears on something sent out by the Holy See Press Office, it can be reliably taken as the official line. The message of Cardinal Wuerl, himself a man of great precision and careful speech, was uncharacteristically blunt about those who were concerned that the synod would try to change the traditional practice. They found it all “somewhat threatening,” perhaps because “they just don’t like this pope.”
Hours after the conclusion of the synod, O’Connell, a reliable English-language conduit for those close to the Pope, wrote a commentary that identified by name Cardinals Pell, Ouellet, Sarah and Mueller as those within the curia “rowing in a different direction” than the Pope, and whom the Pope’s final address characterized as having “closed hearts.” To say that was a departure from normal Roman discretion would be an understatement.
Catholics now wait for Rome to speak definitively. The voices closest to the Bishop of Rome are already speaking, increasingly confident that when the time comes, Rome will not say what she said before.
STAR WARS: MAY THE MERCY BE WITH YOU
Pope Francis has declared a special Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning on December 8, 2015. The world needs mercy to be sure, but how many will follow the special events in Rome, or even the local initiatives in their own parishes? Mercifully, the Year of Mercy might get some help from Hollywood. A few days after Pope Francis opens the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica to inaugurate the year, the latest Star Wars episode will land in theatres the world over.
It will be Episode VII, the first of the third trilogy of films. I have no idea how the story will unfold, but it will bear watching. Star Wars is the most commercially successful cinema series ever. The films are notable for dazzling special effects, clunky dialogue and only occasional lapses into good acting. Why then their popularity? I suspect it’s because they tell, in a thoroughly contemporary way, the most ancient stories about the human condition.
Perhaps because Star Wars pioneered the phenomenon of the movie as marketing bonanza, it has earned the withering disdain of elite critics. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane denounced George Lucas and all his works in his review of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. “Deep nonsense” was how he began his vivisection of the Star Wars six-part series, finally condemning it all as “flawless and irredeemable vulgarity.” Twenty-eight years ago, it was the same with the first Star Wars in the New Yorker, with then-critic Pauline Kael panning it as the “genius of plodding” and saying that Lucas “has got the tone of bad movies down pat.”
Everything that is popular is not meritorious – which goes double for pop culture – but one might step back to ask why, in the most ephemeral of industries, Star Wars has been so popular for so long. It was Kael, after all, who earned her place in history not for her reviews but for her comment on President Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election in 1972: “How could that be? I don’t know a single person who voted for [him].”
The legions of fans who consume Star Wars are not exactly a Nixonian silent majority; to the contrary, they loudly trumpet their sometimes fanatical devotion, even queuing up for days before the films open. For boys of a certain age (I was six when the first film was released in 1977), Star Wars provided the architecture of our imaginary worlds. I remember well the only boy in our class whose parents had bought him the Millennium Falcon – invitations to play at his house after school were highly prized. Star Wars was brimming over with the things loved by boys of all ages: spaceships and grotesque creatures and alien worlds and – best of all – lightsabers. But other movies had those, too. Star Wars added a strange mystical reality – the Force – and codes of honour and duty played out against the cosmic drama of good and evil. It is this that has sustained interest in the saga over almost 40 years.
From the beginning, many fans noted the religious images in Star Wars, far too numerous to be accidental. Sir Alec Guinness wore the garb of a monk in his turn as the elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi; and Luke Skywalker, when he finally makes it as a Jedi, dresses like young priest. Darth Vader’s helmet is a stylized mitre of sorts, all the better to evoke the corrupt bishop he has become. The wicked emperor carries a staff and is attended by a court that includes attendants decked head-to-toe in cardinal red. The last instalment gave us the sinister Order 66 – subtle it’s not – and a Jedi “temple” with a minaret-like construction. Above all, there is the Force, which in addition to allowing the Jedi to levitate objects and other cool things, is a potent combination of everything-is-god pantheism, quasi Buddhist eschatology, New Age energy fields and Manichean dualism. Anakin Skywalker is called the Chosen One, perhaps virginally conceived; the Dark Side is the evil principle that seeks the corruption of the best, even as Lucifer was the greatest of all the angels.
Yet Star Wars is not principally a religious story about the corruption of an elite priesthood (Lucas has hinted that the Jedi were modelled loosely on the Jesuits) seduced into employing their special abilities in a quest for power. Rather it is an older story, a much older story about the deepest human dramas – a tale of love, sacrifice and fatherhood on the one hand, and the tragedy of hate, domination and tyranny on the other. It is the conflict between competing stories about the human experience. It is a test about which account is a more authentic description of the path to human flourishing.
The Star Wars double trilogy is about Anakin Skywalker, a young boy of preternatural abilities who has no father – whether it is because his mother was abandoned or, as was suggested in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, because he was conceived without a father at all. Identified by the Jedi masters as strong in the Force, he is taken into their custody for training. The Jedi present to him the ideals of honour and duty and sacrifice in which those who have been given much are required to serve the good of all.
As a young man, Anakin rejects his Jedi masters, and the evil Emperor Palpatine offers a different vision to Anakin: those who have been given much have the power to seize more – even the ultimate power to create life and cheat death. It is the way of domination, not sacrifice.
In this, Lucas revisits an ancient debate about the nature of our human sojourn. Is the primordial reality the one of the master and the slave, as the philosopher Georg Hegel would have it? Does man have to choose between being dominant or dominated, in which case the purpose of life and the engine of history is the struggle for power between those who would be masters and those who would be slaves?
That is the way of the Dark Side, in which the desire to avenge one’s own pain fuels the lust for power. Power is the only remedy for pain – to hurt others before they can hurt you. In Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the Emperor attempts to seduce Luke Skywalker, Anakin’s secret son, to the Dark Side. Luke is invited to kill Vader and take his place at the side of the all-powerful Emperor. It is the Hegelian dynamic of master and slave at work. The slave either remains a slave to be destroyed at the master’s command, or he kills the master and takes his place. It is the way of the gun or, if you will, the lightsaber.
“Show no mercy” is the first lesson the Emperor teaches Anakin-cum-Vader in Sith. Mercy is the undoing of the tyrant, for he considers it a weakness that allows his potential opponents to fight another day. There is no room for mercy in the Hegelian master-slave telling of the human story. Kill or be killed it is: The new Lord Vader massacres the innocent “younglings” in a slaughter that echoes exactly the Biblical figures of Pharaoh and King Herod.
Eventually the Emperor makes the same offer to Luke: kill Vader and take his place or be killed. But Vader is Luke’s father, so the master-slave dynamic meets the father-son relationship.
It is striking that for a saga saturated with violence, the final triumph of the Jedi is through a work of mercy – the sparing of Vader by Luke – and the witness of suffering. It is the suffering of the son that inspires the conversion of the father, and Vader turns against the Emperor and destroys him, at the cost of his own life. The “show no mercy” domination of the tyrant is finally defeated only by the medicine of mercy and the power of filial suffering to move the paternal heart.
In the end, the only alternative in human relations to the Hegelian master-slave dynamic is the father-son relationship. Either the powerful oppress the weak, as tyrants oppress slaves, or the powerful one sacrifices himself for the weaker, as a father will give his life for his son. This clash of archetypes is at the heart of Lucas’ mythology. Star Wars is not a work of philosophy, much less theology. But good storytelling always includes both, and it is this ancient story made new that invites us to return again and again to “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
GIFTS OF THE MAGI
It was a long time ago and, by the standards of the time, a land far away, whence the Magi came to seek the newborn King of the Jews. The gifts of the Magi are amidst the most evocative in all the Scriptures. Who are these mysterious men, and what do their gifts portend? In the October 2015 "Sea to Sea," the idea was proposed that the gold, frankincense and myrrh might correspond to the Christian mission of proclamation, worship and service. There are more traditional interpretations, corresponding to the triplex mission of Jesus as priest, prophet and king. Or perhaps the gold was to indicate that Jesus was indeed a king, but also a priest (frankincense) like the ancient Melchizedek of whom the Letter to the Hebrews speaks. Jesus will be a particular kind of priest, who offers himself in sacrifice on the Cross, being laid dead in the tomb (myrrh).
There are many interpretations about the gifts the Magi. Yet there is a consensus among the ancient preachers on the Magi – their arrival means that Jesus is not only for those within the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David, but for all the nations. In that sense, the Magi’s arrival is perhaps more of a feast day of the incarnation for Gentiles than is Christmas itself. We get a sense of that as Eastern Christians celebrate Christmas when Western Christians mark the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi.
The Magi, after having encountered Jesus and been warned in a dream, return to their country by a different route. The patristic preachers made much of that. Encountering Jesus means going in a different direction. The Magi searched at length for Bethlehem. Their destination in turn changed their own journey. For our readers, we wish the same. Jesus has come for the nations. May it, at long last, change the course of those nations. A happy and holy Christmas to all!