As Canadians return to the polls once again, a new book by former politician John Milloy is a must-read for Catholics interested in deepening their understanding of the role faith plays in the world of politics. Politics and Faith in a Polarized World: A Challenge for Catholics offers a perspective on the relationship between faith and today's political realities from a politician’s point of view. (You can read a review of the book here.)
John Milloy served as the Member of Provincial Parliament for Kitchener Centre from 2003 to 2014, where he held several cabinet portfolios. Before that, he was also a political advisor, working under former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He is currently Assistant Professor of Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College.
He recently spoke with Benjamin Boivin about the book and his experience as a Catholic politician.
Boivin: One of the features of your book is that you seek to show your reader the implications of political life from a Catholic point of view. What inspired you to write this book? Why now?
I think the last year and a half has been incredible for our society, living through the pandemic. Many issues have been raised. Obviously direct ones about the pandemic itself, but also how we treat each other, how we treat our seniors, how we treat those who are on the margins, who are living in poverty or suffering from economic inequality. This has been a period when issues like indigenous reconciliation and racism have become very prominent.
When I look at all of that, I say to myself : “You know what, we need as a nation to have a serious conversation about our country and where we’re headed, we need to hear lots of voices, and one of those voices should be people of faith.” I think of my own faith, the Catholic tradition, I think of all that we have to offer to this discussion in terms of Catholic social teaching, in terms of our outlook on the world. I think we can make a very valuable contribution.
However, over the past little while, I fear that the Catholic faith has been diminished in the eyes of the public, of the media. They often see Catholics as being obsessed with the issue of abortion. Certainly during 2019, Andrew Scheer, who is a Catholic politician – it became almost a game to go after him on his Catholicism, which was defined very narrowly to what it says about abortion and same-sex marriage. People are forgetting the richness of the Catholic faith and its contribution.
Religious literacy is very low in our country. I don’t think a lot of people understand – even people who have been raised as Catholics or grew up in a Catholic household – the richness of our faith. I think a lot of individuals don’t realize that Catholicism is more than just some set of rules. It’s about a worldview, an understanding of our role on Earth, our responsibility to each other. So I think that’s part of the issue.
The other part of the issue, though, is Catholics. Catholics either leave their faith at church on Sundays, or, in many cases when they do speak publicly, they tend to talk about abortion and same-sex marriage, which is a narrow group of issues. I’m not saying they are not important issues, but where are the Catholic voices talking about some of these huge economic issues that we’re facing, the environmental issues that we’re facing, issues around inequality?
Catholics have a heck of a lot to say about that, and yet we never hear those voices. Oftentimes, the discussion about this narrow band of issues is not even truly in a public policy context. It seems to almost be a way to define who are the good guys and the bad guys. It’s not really about a clear agenda on some of these issues. It’s about how does politician X or politician Y stand on them. Are they one of us or not one of us? The breadth of our faith gets lost.
In your book, you talk about the need, in a diverse and polarized society like Canada, “to understand each other’s share of the truth.” For Catholics, who believe in an absolute truth, what does that look like in practice? And how far does it go?
I should say that “share of the truth” is actually from Fratelli Tutti
– Pope Francis uses that term. I rely heavily on a couple of theologians in the book. One of them is Luke Bretherton, who is not a Catholic. He speaks about politics as people coming together to solve problems, to – he uses this term – “negotiate a common life”. The people that come together are friends, strangers, and enemies. Jesus talked a lot about enemies. Jesus spent a lot of time with people on the margins, with outcasts. He talked to Roman centurions, he talked to tax collectors and prostitutes, he talked to Samaritans. Jesus showed us and demonstrated to us that we’re all in this together, and we have got to find a way to engage with each other and to work together.
This whole idea of loving your enemy, of engaging with the outsider, is so much a part of our faith. Are there moments when we need to stand up and say “enough is enough, this is wrong, this is absolutely wrong, we need to take a stand”? Of course those moments arise, but they are much rarer than we think. They’re not very frequent. Most of the time, we need to actually sit down with people who have different views. Our faith calls us to try to work things through, to hear the other person's views, to hear their “share of the truth” and move forward together. That’s a big part of our faith that, again, we never speak about. The Christian commentator Richard Rohr recently wrote that some Catholics seem to spend a lot of time trying to tell God who He should and should not love. That’s not our role! Our role is to reach out and to try to build bridges. We are in a society where bridge-building is desperately needed. Yet that part of our call is not front and centre.
You also address the effects of politics on Catholicism today. What are the risks for Catholics in today’s political context? Can Catholic social teaching be a bulwark against excessive partisanship?
I certainly hope so. We do live in a highly partisan system, and the kind of attitude which exists in politics can be destructive and erode your sense over time of what is right and wrong. What becomes right is what’s going to help you get elected. It becomes very tribal, and you sort of get your elbows up and you go after the other side. Over time, it really can undermine our system and I think we’re seeing that right now.
I’m not saying that Catholic politicians are better than others, I’m just saying that Catholicism gives you some tools to start to think about this. Again, the idea that you need to build bridges, the fact that you have to recognize the humanity of the person who’s facing you across the Chamber are examples of this. Humility is also a big part of our faith. You don’t have all the answers. You need to listen to what others have to say.
In terms of your program itself, there is this temptation to just always go for what’s politically expedient. And yet when your faith is reminding you that you have a special responsibility to the poor, to the marginalized and that you have a responsibility of stewardship to the Creation, all of a sudden that serves as a counterweight to the “win-win-win at all costs” mindset. I think that the Catholic faith can be something that helps those in public life, that grounds them, that provides a balance, and that prevents some of this undermining that I just mentioned.
It seems like for some reason Catholic social teaching is not represented as a whole by any major party in a Western democracy today. Some of its aspects are better represented by parties of the left, some others better reflected in the programs of right-wing parties. It would be hard to imagine someone who tries to put Catholic social teaching forward as a whole to be excessively partisan, wouldn't it?
It’s an excellent point. When you read Fratelli Tutti
, it’s funny because sometimes you think: “Ah! I know where Pope Francis is coming from. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool left-winger.” And then you get to the next section and you go: “Wait a minute, he’s a conservative.” And then you say: “Maybe he’s a centrist.” That’s exactly it. And because of that, you can’t be excessively partisan. You think of the concern for the poor, the concern for those in the margins and you say: “Wow, we need a strong welfare state.” But then you look at an issue like subsidiarity, which says: “Look, you have to start with the family and the community, and you have to give them the tools to deal with it.”
There is within Catholic social teaching, and I think this is very important, a view that utopia is not just around the corner. I quote a TV series, actually out of the UK, where one of the characters says: “There’s no solution to the world.” I do throw in a caveat. Catholics believe there is a solution to the world: Jesus Christ and the Second Coming. But until then, we’re going to struggle. Being a Catholic means throwing your heart and soul into it and knowing you’re always going to fall short.
We don’t have this monopoly on the truth. I’ve met people who believe all you need is another program, that every problem in society can be solved by a program. That’s not Catholicism. By the same token, some say: “That homeless person on the side of the street should get a job, it’s not my responsibility.” That’s not the Catholic view either. There is this back and forth.
Obviously, someone who’s running for a partisan role is going to choose a political party, and presumably they’re going to be loyal to that political party. But as you rightly point out, you can’t be that partisan when you realize that there are aspects of your political party which may not really reflect a part of Catholic social teaching, and there are aspects of what you’re hearing from the opposition and other voices which do. So you’ve got to try to walk that tightrope.
You devote a portion of the book to what you call the “hot-button issues”, like abortion and same-sex marriage. You seem to believe that Canadian society remains reluctant to re-examine them legislatively. How do you think Catholics can politically address these issues in a healthy, productive way?
I actually make a point in the book: here I am, a person who says we can’t just define Catholicism and politics by hot-button issues. But then I devote a big portion of the book to them! I had to address it. The starting point for any of these discussions has to be public policy: public policy in a pluralistic society like Canada and public policy within the political realities of what is Canada today. There is little interest in dealing with any of these issues legislatively.
The four main political parties – and in fact you could add the Bloc and a few others, too – go to great pains to paint their pro-choice credetentials: they would never, ever, under any circumstances, deal with this legislatively. Yet we have this very vocal group. I’m not condemning them, I want to build bridges, this is not about condemning them. Their whole political agenda is to pass a law which no one is going to touch with a thousand-foot pole. And so we end up with a stalemate.
As I said earlier, it just turns into a way of keeping score. I was a Catholic politician and I was sent questionnaires. They came to all candidate's meetings. I was called a dissident Catholic on the websites of certain groups. They kind of went after me because they didn’t see me put forward a law. I’m not even sure what this law is going to look like. That does not mean you throw away the idea of respect for life. Respect for life is a lot broader than a particular law.
I make the theological case: I go from Thomas Aquinas to John Courtney Murray. Actually, I look at some of the things said by the bishops in the 1960s, and other theologians. I make the theological case that you have to meet the world where it is. Where the world is now is not about laws. That said, I think there is a case to be made that we need to respect life and we need to respect life at all stages.
You know of individuals who call themselves pro-choice. Pro-choice means choice. And in my mind, choice means, for a woman in crisis who is pregnant: what are the supports that are there for her? What are the supports after? If she chooses to keep that child, what are the supports for that child? What is the environment that that child is going to grow up in? Are we going to deal with climate change and pollution and things like that? What are the educational opportunities? If that child is racialized, what kind of society are we going to have where that child may find themself continually on the margins? And all the way through to issues around medical assistance in dying. What are the resources that we’re putting into palliative care? Studies after studies have shown it’s a drop in the bucket. We need to make those things priorities as we move through.
The point that I make in the book is that a law is not where we’re at. Let’s meet the world where it is and let’s start to push for a pro-life agenda which deals with a whole range of issues. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin talked about a consistent ethic of life. He said: “You can’t just pick and choose.” You need to think about foreign affairs and how we are dealing with people in the developing world, the poor souls in Afghanistan, refugees, and development aid. You need to think of that whole range, and you need to create the type of society where we are thinking about life at all stages and how we can support it.
I think there are opportunities for Catholics to weave that in, and yet we trip ourselves up in this issue of a law all the time. Just look at the campaign that’s going on right now. The parties are pushing each other at the microphone to say: “Never in a million years will we have a law!” You know what? I believe them. They’re not going to have a law. That’s not to take away from anyone. There are groups out there that are pushing for a law, there are groups out there that are protesting. I’m all for building bridges, but I think a lot of Catholics need to look at the broader picture.
In your book, you criticize a certain tendency to focus on these issues and highlight what seems to be a corresponding tendency among Catholics to avoid or ignore economic and social justice issues. What are the risks, to us as individuals or to society, when we separate the different aspects of Catholic social teaching and pursue only part of them?
The obvious risk is that our Catholic voices are being left out of very important conversations about economic policy, environmental policy, and things like that. More specific to your question, I think the biggest risk is one of credibility. If being Catholic in a public policy – or political – sphere is defined entirely as being anti-abortion, we’ll get left behind. People will say: “Why would we ever listen to Catholics?”
I’m a teacher at a university system and I speak with young people all the time. They have a very different view of a lot of these issues. They don’t see them as particularly complex or top-of-mind. In their mind, abortion is a settled matter and Catholics are just a bunch of out-of-touch people on the fringes. I’m saying: “My gosh! If they understood our faith! If they understood some of the really powerful things we could be saying about the state of the world that would align very much with their interests and their concerns, we really could generate a great conversation.” But we never bring them up. It’s hard to be overly defensive when everybody says Catholicism is only about abortion and a few hot-button issues when that’s all we talk about.
I make the exception of the pope. The pope is the one who is coming up and talking about refugees, poverty, economic inequality, and the excesses of capitalism. I just think we could have so much more credibility if we were talking about that, and of course, as always, it’s not just talking about it. The end of all these discussions has to be the mirror: As Catholics, what are we doing about economic inequality? What are we doing about the environment? Are we voting along the lines of Catholic social teaching, or are we asking which party is going to cut my taxes? Are we only considering appearances?
As Catholics, we need to study the issues, we need to study the positions of the parties, we have to think of them seriously, we have to think of our own activities, we have to think of the role of the government. We have to say what kind of world we would like as Catholics.
Here’s the final point I’ll make on this question. In the book I quote the joke where the bishops ask the politician: “What’s your stance on crime?” and the politician says: “I’m against it.” You find that on the campaign trail now. Everyone’s going to solve all the problems of the world. The fact is you can’t solve the problems of the world; you have to prioritize them. Part of the role of Catholics is not only supporting those parties which align with the values that shape them but also send a message that they need to be priorities.
When it comes to Catholic social teaching, though, if we focus solely on economic and social justice issues, we can lose sight of the wise advice you mentioned earlier about not expecting utopian developments from politics, don't you think?
Yes, there’s a risk that Catholics fall into the trap of this mushy middle of the road – which, as a former politician, everyone loved – where we’re all in favour of everything that’s good and opposed to everything that’s bad, where we demand little of the population, where we straddle the fence on everything. I think there is a danger that Catholics or people of faith fall into that trap.
I think there are aspects of our faith which are revolutionary. There are times that we should be ready to deliver some pretty revolutionary messages. I often try to define public theology for people who are not immersed in it by saying: “What does it mean to me as a Catholic if I see a homeless person when I walk out of my office building?” Public theology is: “What does it mean to me as a Catholic if I see one hundred homeless people as I make my way down the street?” I think you have to look at both, not let the government do it, not let other people do it. What does it mean to me ? What’s my role in this ? It could be a very difficult message.
I think you’re right that if we just say: “Well, look, I won’t mention hot-button issues because that’s the polite thing to do, I’ll tell everyone that I’m a Catholic and that Catholics believe in being nice to each other, being nice to the poor, taking care of the environment and letting the government do it”, that’s not really the call of Catholicism. There’s something revolutionary about it. There’s something prophetic where you go in and say: “You know what? If we really see the face of God in everyone, that means that we’re going to have to change some things quite radically as we move forward.”
I think Catholicism always needs to have that edge to it. I agree with you 100% that it can’t align itself with a certain party because you’ll find that, with the positions on the political spectrum, it never fits 100%, certain aspects fit elsewhere. In terms of the hot-button issues, I think we need to accept society where it is and try to broaden our approach and really look at how we can have more general policies which support the type of world we’re trying to build.