Justin Trudeau’s ‘celebrity secularism’ and an examination of Canadian conscience

In Canada, a nation that sees itself as a multicultural hodgepodge proud of its differences, Catholics are caught in a complex web of influences and identities. And that web does not stop at the personal level. The complications of Canadian Catholicism came into sharp relief when Justin Trudeau, a Catholic politician and leader of the popular Liberal Party, became prime minister in October 2015.

Prior to his bid for prime minister, Mr. Trudeau announced in May 2014 that the Liberal Party he served as leader would no longer run candidates who refused to vote along pro-choice party lines. Liberal Party members of Parliament could have alternative personal views, Mr. Trudeau said, but if a bill or motion came to a vote, they would have no choice but to vote along party lines, supporting access to abortion.

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The new policy made headlines in part because it ignored the pro-life positions of many lifelong Liberal Party members and made the Conservative Party the only one of Canada's three major parties that allowed candidates to vote their conscience on abortion issues. (The third major Canadian political party, the New Democratic Party, also requires its members to vote pro-choice.) But the decision also gained publicity because Mr. Trudeau is himself Roman Catholic.

Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto, wrote an open letter to Mr. Trudeau that same month, urging him to reverse his position. The letter said that while party unity and discipline are reasonably within the scope of political leadership, “political authority is not limitless: it does not extend to matters of conscience and religious faith.”

Liberal Party members of Parliament could have alternative personal views, Mr. Trudeau said, but if a bill or motion came to a vote, they would have no choice but to vote along party lines, supporting access to abortion.

A variety of other members of the Catholic hierarchy also criticized Mr. Trudeau’s decision, including the archbishop of Ottawa, Terrence Prendergast, S.J., who asked for a meeting with the Liberal Party leader to discuss the issue. Mr. Trudeau defended his position, and its conflict with his church’s teachings, by appealing to the example of his father, Pierre Trudeau. As a Catholic prime minister, the elder Trudeau had legalized divorce and decriminalized homosexual relations between consenting adults, noting, “The state has no business in the nation’s bedrooms.”

While the reference to his father’s legacy may have been politically astute, the experiences of the two Trudeaus, especially regarding their relationships with the church in Canada, cannot be compared easily. Pierre Trudeau was known as a Catholic intellectual and maintained a different style of leadership and public persona than his son.

Educated by Jesuits in Quebec and later influenced by French Catholic, left-leaning intellectuals like Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson and Emmanuel Mounier, Pierre Trudeau had disagreements with the church hierarchy that were nevertheless formed in a Catholic milieu. Beginning his tenure as prime minister in 1968, Pierre Trudeau also was a benefactor of the progressive spirit of the Second Vatican Council, not least in his dialogue with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which became increasingly concerned with issues of social justice and collaborating with other institutions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Born while his father was still serving as prime minister, Justin Trudeau did not grow up in the unique Québécois Catholicism of the early 20th century. When he was 5 and living in Ottawa, his parents famously and publicly separated.

When Justin Trudeau, at 12, attended the same private school his father had attended, it was no longer run by the Jesuits. Like many Catholic institutions, after the Quiet Revolution, a time of rapid legal secularization in Quebec initiated after the election of a Liberal provincial government in 1960, it had been secularized. While he recalls a strong presence of prayer and church attendance from his childhood, by his late adolescence, Justin Trudeau says, he became a “lapsed Catholic.”

Later, however, his faith would be revived after the loss of his brother, Michel Trudeau, who died in an avalanche. He would even deliver a speech at a “countdown pep rally” in Toronto a year before the 2002 World Youth Day. The young Trudeau’s Catholicism was of a different kind than his father’s, more affective than academic, even while both Trudeaus have had their disagreements with Canada’s bishops.

While he recalls a strong presence of prayer and church attendance from his childhood, by his late adolescence, Justin Trudeau says, he became a “lapsed Catholic.”

The controversy surrounding the Liberal Party’s stance toward pro-life politics signaled what would become a series of public clashes between Mr. Trudeau’s political and Catholic identities as he campaigned for and subsequently won his party’s prime ministership. As Mr. Trudeau negotiates this tension in his own life, Canadian Catholics have had to negotiate their own along with him. The Liberals have been slow to deliver on campaign commitments to climate responsibility and indigenous rights, while they have loudly supported the legalization of euthanasia and the earmarking of Canadian foreign aid for abortion and contraception.

The latest contretemps between Mr. Trudeau and the church in Canada erupted over funding restrictions set in place for the Canada Summer Jobs program. That federal program subsidizes nonprofits and small and public-sector employers, including Catholic diocesan and other church-based organizations, to help create summer jobs for students between the ages of 15 and 30. Individual members of Parliament review applications and allocate the grants within their districts.

After reports surfaced that millions had been awarded under the program to Catholic right-to-life groups, the Liberal Party said in December that it would limit funding only to groups that can attest that “the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” adding, “as well as other rights.” Those other rights include “reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”

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Canadian bishops denounced the new limitation in a statement released in January: “Faith communities consider abortion, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression as major questions with ethical, moral, social and personal bearing which determine our understanding of human dignity and thus appreciation for the meaning and significance of each and every human life,” they wrote. “This new policy conflicts directly with the right to freedom of religion and conscience which too are enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as in associated case law.”

The bishops argue the subsidy restriction “seriously undermines the right to religious freedom since the Government of Canada is directly limiting the right of religious traditions to hold, teach and practise their principles and values in public.” The Toronto Right to Life Association has sued to force the federal government to drop the “attestation”; final arguments are expected to be heard in May.

Of course, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party is not a strictly Catholic party, nor is any other significant party in Canada, a nation with a difficult history between Catholics and Protestants and an increasing influx of immigrants from other traditions and identities. Mr. Trudeau often defends his party’s positions by expressing his desire to include “all Canadians” and then delivering a snappy comment, like his famous rationale for having a cabinet for the first time in Canadian political history evenly represented by both men and women: “Because it’s 2015.” Though including all Canadians is a tall order, with Mr. Trudeau at the helm, the Liberals have a young, good-looking, celebrity citizen guiding and advertising policy agendas.

It is tempting here to talk about a kind of “celebrity secularism,” a public image that significantly puts pressure on religious communities, including the church Mr. Trudeau belongs to, by appeals to public opinion and effective marketing campaigns. That dynamic is undeniably present in Mr. Trudeau’s governing strategy. But in Canada, in light of the value the country places on pluralism and diversity, Catholics have complicated identities already. As a result, Mr. Trudeau is less exceptional and Canada’s secularism is more complicated than some public confrontations might suggest.

Motivation Matters
Narratives that involve conflicts between “secular” states and “religious” communities are well known in places like the United States, from banal complaints about holiday greetings to legal challenges over health care policy. In those debates, “secular” usually means a form of social control that challenges religious views or commitments. Ardent secularists push this view themselves, insisting on the “backward” thinking of religious people or worldviews, but so do religious objectors, who see themselves as victims of cultural persecution.

Setting secularism up this way paints a picture of religious communities defending themselves against secular authorities, a sort of underdog story. There are certainly Canadian Catholics who feel they are being intentionally pushed out of public discourse, like the Rev. Raymond de Souza, who late last year called Justin Trudeau “the acceptable face of hardline secularism.”

Some Canadian bishops have tried to speak up about that worry. But, as Pamela Klassen, a professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, says, “If we want to think about Canada as a secular society, we have to always bring that down to local contexts and figure out what is meant by ‘secular’—for whom, in opposition to what?”

Ms. Klassen, who researches how conversations about the secular and religious shape Canadian society, argues that the term secular as applied to Canadian society is not a descriptor that can be taken for granted. It may mean something altogether different north of the U.S. border, and when divisions are drawn between the religious and secular, some voices in religious communities gain more traction than others.

“They can more forcibly say what differentiates them from secularism,” says Ms. Klassen, “whereas the groups within any particular religious tradition who feel themselves to have alliances with certain ‘secular’ causes can get sort of written off as sellouts. I think it’s way more complicated.”

Ms. Klassen points out that even Catholics who find themselves making hard decisions about Catholic teaching—about the use of birth control, for example—are often motivated by their faith, their families and their religious values, and are not simply capitulating to secularism. She cited the Canadian bishops’ controversial statement in 1968 on Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” commonly called the Winnipeg Statement, as an example of how the church hierarchy, too, recognizes that these difficult choices can still be motivated by faithful intentions.

Even Catholics who find themselves making hard decisions about Catholic teaching—about the use of birth control, for example—are often motivated by their faith.

In the Winnipeg Statement, the Canadian bishops said that some Catholics “find it either extremely difficult or even impossible to make their own all elements of [the] doctrine” contained in the encyclical, which famously prohibited the use of contraceptives. “[T]hese Catholics should not be considered, or consider themselves, shut off from the body of the faithful,” the statement says, while underscoring the need for “sincere self-examination to determine the true motives and grounds for such suspension of assent.”

“Many women think about fertility as a spiritual question, and the decision to use birth control isn’t necessarily a secular one,” Ms. Klassen says. The Winnipeg Statement seems to suggest something similar to Ms. Klassen’s statement when it refers to the “conflict of duties” Catholics might feel when it comes to the use of contraceptives, for example, “the reconciling of conjugal love and responsible parenthood with the education of children already born or with the health of the mother.”

Still, when it comes to Catholics who are trying to be in line with the church’s official teachings, Mr. Trudeau’s Canada might seem like a secularist disciplinarian indeed, albeit one that tries to make room for religious identities within certain limits. When, for example, Cardinal Collins and Bishop Douglas Crosby wrote letters against the commitment of the Liberal government to send $650 million overseas to promote and provide abortion services and other health matters, they were speaking against a secularism that allows them to be Catholic but puts limits on their authority.

Whether in their personal lives or politically promoting aspects of church teaching that are not labeled conservative in North America, faithful Catholics are sometimes accused of capitulating to their secular environment instead of making decisions or fighting for certain causes precisely because they are Catholics. As Catholics often emphasize, Catholic social teaching is not reducible to prepackaged political positions. Yet rarely are voices raised about Canadian secularism when it clashes with Catholic complaints about issues like the Liberal government’s greenlighting of new oil pipelines in Canada or in connection to their pleas for a more just society for L.G.B.T. persons.

All this is to say that talking about Canada’s secularism runs the risk of oversimplifying the situation. “Catholics are a complicated bunch,” Ms. Klassen says, “just like any others. If you take an issue, depending on how you slice it, the people who end up ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ change. We have to see how these categories help us see the world in clearer ways, but also obscure the world.”

The Canadian Compromise
If a harsh division between secularism and religion is hard to sustain, how exactly do Catholics relate to their contemporary, complicated Canadian context? Asking such a general question is already starting off on the wrong foot, suggests Dennis O’Hara, associate professor in the faculty of theology at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. “The typical Canadian doesn’t exist, and neither does the typical Canadian Catholic. A city like Toronto is so multicultural, and so is my parish,” he says. “The notion that Roman Catholics in Canada are homogenous is so off the mark.”

“Catholics are a complicated bunch, just like any others. If you take an issue, depending on how you slice it, the people who end up ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ change.”

The diversity of Catholicism is unsurprising in Canada’s shifting landscape, Mr. O’Hara says. “If you’re involved with hockey, you meet a tremendously diverse group of people there. In various social justice issues you meet diverse people from different strata. And in our parishes you meet a tremendous diversity of people.” Navigating that difference, says Mr. O’Hara, has led to a desire “to find compromise and to seek reconciliation as much as possible.”

A 2015 study on Canadian views on religious belief, faith and multifaith issues by the Angus Reid Institute, a public opinion research organization based in Vancouver, British Columbia, confirms Mr. O’Hara’s analysis. Between 2001 and 2011, 478,000 Catholics immigrated to Canada, making them the largest religious demographic among newcomers to Canada, a nation that often contrasts its multiculturalism with the U.S. melting pot.

But despite that influx, the study suggests a flattening of religious edges in Canada, a nation where 26 percent say they are inclined to reject religious belief, 30 percent report that they are inclined to embrace religious belief—their numbers have been shrinking—and the remaining 44 percent reside uneasily somewhere in between. A majority of Canadian Catholics—57 percent overall and 63 percent among Quebec Catholics—believe that “what’s right or wrong is a matter of personal opinion.” The Angus Reid Institute also reports that 85 percent of Canadian Catholics think a woman should have the right to get an abortion if her own health is at risk, and 45 percent support access to abortion without qualifications.

The Canadian Catholic hierarchy is aware of the range of Catholic opinion in Canada even on bedrock moral issues, as well as the changing social landscape that is propelling it. In an email, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, of the Archdiocese of Gatineau, Quebec, told America, “In the past, when the broader society mirrored Christian ethics, it was easier to live according to the teachings of the church. In a sense, one didn’t even have to think about it, one simply followed the crowd.”

Archbishop Durocher wonders if this situation made it more difficult for Catholics to find a mature faith. “Indeed, the fact that so many Catholics stopped attending church when the social strictures fell is a sign that they had not attained the maturity of faith for which we should all strive.”

Without the ability to take a thickly Catholic community for granted, Archbishop Durocher says, the bishops have tried to avoid extremes: for example, “on the one hand, viewing contemporary culture as totally deprived of any worth, as if God’s Spirit had retired from our world and been constrained to the Catholic Church; on the other, accepting everything that our culture proposes as if every new trend were a ‘sign of the times’.”

Instead, Archbishop Durocher says the church has tried to sift through Canadian society to find what aspects seem compatible with the Gospel and what ones are counter to it. “In my estimation, the approach adopted by the Bishops of Canada tends to follow Saint John’s advice about ‘testing the spirit’ to see whether it be from God or not.”

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about assisted dying, Archbishop Prendergast noted Canadian society is characterized by toleration for other positions even if they disagree with the church and that his role and challenge is to communicate church teachings in that environment. Mr. O’Hara, who researches environmental and medical ethics, says that while he wants the church to have a public voice, its moral credibility remains badly weakened not just because of pluralism, but because of its own slow response to moral crises within its own institutions, like the sex abuse scandal in Canada.

The study suggests a flattening of religious edges in Canada, a nation where 26 percent say they are inclined to reject religious belief, 30 percent report that they are inclined to embrace religious belief and the remaining 44 percent reside uneasily somewhere in between.

“The role of the church in [public] matters is moral suasion, not [pushing specific] legislation,” Mr. O’Hara says, and he hopes the church can work to regain some of its lost moral witness. Some of that work, he suggests, is happening through the willingness of Catholic religious orders to wade into difficult situations themselves, like the Jesuits interacting with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the Sisters of St. Joseph advocating for more palliative care as an alternative to euthanasia, which became legal in Canada in June 2016.

Despite the Liberal Party’s current exclusionary policy on pro-life membership, “Trudeau was offering a more conciliatory and dialogical approach in the last election,” Mr. O’Hara says, adding that such an approach actually fits with how many Canadian Catholics in the pews feel.

Characterizing that attitude, Mr. O’Hara says those Catholics might say something like: “I’m not for abortion, but I can understand why, as a society, we’re going to permit it as a legal option and treat it as a health care issue. I’ll still try and persuade people who are considering it not to have an abortion, but I’ll try to be respectful.”

That might seem like a weak moral stance to some pro-life U.S. Catholics, Mr. O’Hara says, “but this is the way we like to do things.”

Though Mr. O’Hara recognizes there are challenges for Catholics reflecting on what their church teaches in relation to the trends in their polity, he says Canadian society depends on and welcomes these tensions as part of the diversity of opinion it accepts in public space. “If the bishops are saying Trudeau has shut down the conversation on an issue, good—make that point. There has to be some sort of tension to create the desire for change.”

Navigating those tensions can be difficult, but Archbishop Durocher says: “The first step is to acknowledge them. Second, to understand why they arise. Third, accept and even embrace them. And fourth, commit to living a mature Christian faith in spite of those tensions.”

Dialogue and Conscience
Mr. O’Hara says that while he appreciates that Canadians value dialogue in their society, “Canadians can be very smug about these things.” That smugness can get in the way of recognizing deeper contradictions and conflicts at the heart of Canadian life, including Canadian religious life. With all the complications about the secular noted by Ms. Klassen and all the compromising politeness celebrated by Mr. O’Hara, a close look at Canadian debates about, and displays of, religion in public reveals that at least some form of northern secularism does try to muscle out voices that it deems too religious.

“Trying to speak out intelligently on such issues is not easy,” says Archbishop Durocher. “The voices of Quebec’s bishops were not heard during the debate on euthanasia. I was told in a media interview that I had no right even to express myself on this topic.”

In those confrontations, Mr. O’Hara says, paying attention to conscience can help make all the difference, both for diagnosing the problems of secularism and interacting with them. “I do think there are things people don’t really want to talk about in public because of secularism,” Mr. O’Hara admits, and he says the Liberal Party’s decision to prohibit members from voting their conscience is a significant issue.

“Examining your informed conscience is what Roman Catholics do all the time,” he says. “Sometimes that might mean disagreeing with the church too. The bishops are right in noting there is a tension between Canadian politics and Catholic teaching; they would also want to create the pastoral setting for people to reflect deeply on these tensions themselves.”

The church has to accept, says Mr. O’Hara, that there is “not just a tension between what the Liberal government is doing and people in the pews, but there are also tensions between individual people in the pews with the church and their government.”

“Canadians are great compromisers, for better and worse, and many Canadians get uncomfortable with the possibility of extreme polarizations,” says Mr. O’Hara. That discomfort, he says, can be a good thing when it creates a little more breathing room for a variety of opinions and also a little more respect for opposing views.

Archbishop Durocher agrees, saying: “The challenges are numerous. I believe the path forward lies in the formation of enlightened, committed Catholic adults willing to engage society in dialogue.”

Whether or not Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party encourage a society that knows how to respectfully conduct that dialogue is not always clear. Many Canadians have been upset by the contrasts between Mr. Trudeau’s public image and the actions of the Liberal government, suggesting his conscience might sometimes be shaped more by trending issues than by sincerely confronting the difficulties of including “all Canadians.”

His enthusiasm for pipeline construction, for example, startled many, and some members of Canada’s indigenous communities have questioned his sincerity. Perhaps a “celebrity secularism” is a reasonable concern after all.

While he may sometimes feel as if he were engaged in “what the French call a dialogue with the deaf,” Archbishop Durocher says dialogue between individuals is a better way forward than dialogue between institutions. “I'd love to sit down with Mr. Trudeau—or any other politician—to chat about faith and justice, personal flourishing and the common good,” the archbishop says.

“I’d love to be able to engage in breaking down stereotypes on both sides of the wall and try to understand where the other is coming from.

“I’ve done so on a few occasions with various public officials and have always come away from such encounters enriched and wiser,” Archbishop Durocher adds, “and I like to think they have too.”

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Editor's note: This article was originally posted on Nov. 28, 2017. It was significantly updated with additional reporting on April 20, 2018.

Correction: The original post reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had given a speech at the 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto. In fact Mr. Trudeau had spoken a year before that event at a preliminary rally in Toronto in 2001.

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