The Blessedness of Faith: Why Politics Needs Religion
If religion and religious behaviours are driven to the margins of our common life, including our political life, we deprive ourselves of intellectual and practical energies.
These remarks were delivered at Canada's National Prayer Breakfast 2012, held at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa.
Good morning and thank you. I thank our hosts, the Honourable Speaker of the Senate and the Honourable Speaker of the House of Commons, for convoking this gathering so that we might pray together. At this early hour, I begin with the first words of the day in the Roman Catholic liturgy: Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. May the Lord indeed open our lips and hearts, that we might speak a word of praise to God and of encouragement to each other.
Some of you do me the honour of reading my newspaper column on Thursday mornings, perhaps even while you have your breakfast. I hope that you find my multimedia presence this morning— you can see me, you can hear me!—more pleasing than the column alone. I must warn you, though: Unlike reading me in the National Post, it will take longer than two minutes to get to the end, and there is no option of turning the page in search of something more interesting.
A few weeks ago the thirtieth anniversary of the Constitution Act 1982 was observed, and it begins by stating that "Canada is founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law." This breakfast is a concrete manifestation of just that: Those responsible for making our laws are gathered to invoke the blessings and guidance of the God who is the source of all law. As a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and as a writer, I am a man of words. Words are also the instruments of those who write laws, deliver opinions at court, ask questions in Parliament, and campaign for office—and this morning we pray that our words may be rooted in the Word that was in the beginning, the Word that is God, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-14).
My topic this morning is The Blessedness of Faith: Why Politics Needs Religion. Permit me though to say a few words first about why politicians need religion.
Exactly one year ago today, many of you were in the final moments of a federal election campaign. It was a Sunday, and the people's verdict was to be rendered the next day. On a typical Sunday morning I can be found in my parish on Wolfe Island, in the Saint Lawrence River across from Kingston, but a year ago I was rather far away, in Rome, awaiting the pronunciation of a rather different judgment. Pope John Paul II was declared blessed—a judgment by the Catholic Church that a person is in heaven, having joined that great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).
It was an occasion of immense joy, and Pope Benedict XVI took as the theme for his preaching the blessedness of faith, quoting that Sunday's Gospel reading: Blessed are you who have not seen and yet come to believe (John 20:29).1 John Paul II is in heaven not because of the mighty works he accomplished on earth, but because of the gift of faith, which justifies us in the sight of the Father. Benedict—whose name itself means "blessed"—said that his predecessor "is blessed because of his faith, a strong, generous and apostolic faith." The mission of Saint Peter himself, given to him by the Lord Jesus, is to "strengthen the brethren in the faith" (Luke 22:32).
The gift of faith is intended for all of us. Benedict reminded us of this in his homily a year ago: "All of us, as members of the people of God are making our pilgrim way to the heavenly homeland." Politicians take their place in that great pilgrimage. You too will face a judgment, and on that day whatever success you may have achieved in politics will serve you far less than the blessedness of faith.
We Catholics hold up the figure of Saint Thomas More to those in public life as the model disciple whose pilgrimage took him through the courts of power. He preferred to suffer death under Henry VIII rather than compromise the truths of faith, and for that he is admired by many beyond the Catholic Church as well. Yet many, including close friends and family, urged him to opt for preferment by the king rather than the blessedness of faith. All of you know that temptation. All of you have been told to go along to get ahead. All of you have been offered the counsels of compromise. All of you have been urged to be just a little less faithful, and just a little more realistic. All of you will face, if you have the wit to see it and the honesty to admit it, your own Thomas More moment. Keeping in mind your own day of judgment—the judgment of God, not the judgment of the returning officer— will help you to meet that moment with the integrity and courage that is the fruit of the blessedness of faith.
Many of you are familiar with Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, a dramatic treatment of the life of Thomas More. It includes one of the greatest lines ever written for stage or screen. Sir Thomas addresses the man who betrays him at trial, Richard Rich, now the attorney general for Wales: Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but for Wales? Indeed, it profits a man nothing to give his soul, even for Okanagan-Shuswap, or Hamilton Centre, or Saanich-Gulf Islands, or Toronto Centre. Not even for Calgary Southeast2, the riding in which I grew up and where my parents still live. That is why you, as politicians, need the blessedness of faith, so that you do not sell your soul for Wales.
The blessedness of faith is not only for politicians as individual disciples, but for our politics as a whole. Our politics benefits precisely from the best that you have to offer, namely those convictions which are most deeply rooted in your understanding of our origin and destiny, our identity and our mission. It would be absurd to ask you to set aside that which is most fundamental in your thinking when discharging the affairs of state. There is another line from Bolt's play that is relevant here. Sir Thomas says, "I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos."
Order versus chaos. In the Constitution Act 1867—or the British North America Act as it is more commonly known—we find the famous words of Section 91, namely that legislators are to provide for the "Peace, Order and good Government" of the new Dominion. The order for which our Dominion was founded is precisely the opposite of the chaos that Thomas More feared. We can find the roots of section 91 much earlier, in Saint Augustine, who wrote that peace is precisely the tranquillity of order.3 We can go even further back to Aristotle's Politics, where he wrote that "law is order, and good law is good order."
This order that we seek, that defines law, that produces peace, that animates our Canadian confederation—where then do we find it? From where does it come? Is it merely something we create as a matter of our consensus? Or does it correspond to objective and knowable truths about the human person and the common good of human society?
For example, if we agree that we ought to use politics to give succour and support to those who are poor or sick, is that a matter only of our consensus? Would it be equally valid for our consensus to abandon them to their own afflictions? Can we not find in our Canadian history dozens of similar examples, from health care and education, to the welcoming of immigrants and the pursuit of justice for native peoples? In all these fields do we only proceed by our consensus? Or do we not encounter an order that is beyond us, and which lays an obligation upon us? This order is rooted in something we do not fashion for ourselves; it is rooted rather in the very nature of the human person and our common humanity.
From where do we learn about this human nature, and this common humanity? Aristotle would teach us that from careful application of reason to the question, we might discover the principles of this good order that we seek, and certainly the long history of political philosophy is not lacking in such deliberation. Yet we also know that our human reason is not without a capacity for great errors, and all kinds of grotesque political disorders have been produced by that same philosophical tradition.
For many citizens then, the principles of this good order come from biblical revelation. It opens the world of politics to foundations which it cannot provide for itself, by establishing a transcendent dimension in which are anchored the obligations to care for the weak, to respect the equality of peoples before the law, and to recognize the inviolable dignity of every human person. Indeed, for many people divine revelation produces a more secure adherence to the principles of this tranquillity of order than the work of political philosophy alone.
The objection is made quickly enough that the world of revealed truth can be put to malevolent purposes, and history too has examples of this. In September 2010, Pope Benedict visited Westminster Hall, the very place of Saint Thomas More's trial, and in a most historic address said the following:
This "corrective" role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith—the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief—need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.
Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere.4
Our politics then needs religion. Not only religion of course, for divine revelation does not provide a legislative program. Yet if religion and religious believers are driven to the margins of our common life, including our political life, we deprive ourselves of both the intellectual and practical energies that are essential to many of the noble initiatives of our life together.
Permit me, in a spirit of ecumenism, to quote John Calvin, who taught that while the civil government is "distinct from the spiritual and internal kingdom of Christ" the two are "not adverse to each other." Indeed, Calvin teaches that "the former, in some measure begins the heavenly kingdom in us, even now upon earth, and in this mortal and evanescent life commences immortal and incorruptible blessedness."5 How could the world of politics possibly begin in any way the kingdom of blessedness if God Himself were not active in politics in some fashion? And how could God be active in politics if not in the witness of those rooted in the blessedness of faith?
In a spirit of more radical ecumenism, let this Queen's University man quote a graduate of McGill University, and before that of Herzliah high school in Montreal, Charles Krauthammer. He is commenting on the great questions of order and chaos in the cosmos, and noting that many scientists think that the vastness of the universe must mean that other intelligent life exists, even though the desired evidence has not yet been found. Krauthammer suggests that one reason we have not encountered other intelligent life may be because intelligent civilizations destroy themselves in what is a cosmic blink of an eye. A few months ago, Krauthammer wrote this:
Rather than despair, however, let's put the most hopeful face on the cosmic silence and on humanity's own short, already baleful history with its new Promethean powers: Intelligence is a capacity so godlike, so protean that it must be contained and disciplined. This is the work of politics— understood as the ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.
There could be no greater irony: For all the sublimity of art, physics, music, mathematics and other manifestations of human genius, everything depends on the mundane, frustrating, often debased vocation known as politics (and its most exacting subspecialty—statecraft). Because if we don't get politics right, everything else risks extinction.6
Krauthammer raises the stakes, as perhaps Aristotle himself would have done had he lived in the nuclear age. It is not only good order that politics seeks, but the preservation of any order at all, even the simple order of continued existence. Your mission then as political leaders is essential to our survival. Is it possible then that this task, on which so much depends, ought to proceed apart from the heritage of philosophy, law, literature, artistic beauty, and science that the world of faith has produced?
My latest project is a new magazine called Convivium: Faith in our Common Life. It is intended for a finely calibrated niche, namely those Canadians who find my weekly columns insufficiently long for their optimal health and well-being. "Convivium" literally means "life together" though it is also translated to mean "banquet"—and by banquet we really mean a leisurely dinner, not an early morning breakfast! Together with my colleagues at Cardus, I propose that the contribution of faith to our common life is not only necessary, but an indispensable part of our shared
Canadian history. The preview issue of last fall which is being distributed today includes an article by Bill Blaikie on the often overlooked social gospel tradition in Canada. The Gospel always remains larger than any particular partisan cause. Our life together is larger than any party, and larger than politics as a whole. It all belongs to our common culture, and at the heart of every culture is our cultus, the object of our common worship.7
Your service in politics is a noble one. I have often visited Parliament Hill to offer Mass in the East Block chapel named after Father Sean O'Sullivan, the MP elected in 1972 at the age of 20, and who left the House five years later to become a priest. He died in 1989. As a teenager O'Sullivan was in touch with John Diefenbaker, who, upon hearing that the young man intended to run for Parliament, wrote to him: "It is the greatest form of service, outside of the Christian ministry."
I extend to you Diefenbaker's compliment, even though it redounds to me as well. Your vocation of politics is a noble form of service, and its nobility demands of you the best—the best—that you have to offer, including the blessedness of faith. May the Lord grant you that gift, and for that gift this morning we pray.
In this year in which we mark the 145th anniversary of the British North America Act, granted under the reign of our first diamond jubilee sovereign, Queen Victoria, and the 30th anniversary of the Constitution Act 1982, signed by our second diamond jubilee sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, we are grateful for our peaceable traditions of Crown-in-Parliament. The succession of sovereigns—so magnificently captured in the new stained glass window in the Senate foyer— reminds us of the greatest of the biblical successions, that of Solomon after the reign of his father David. The coronation of both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth included Handel's stirring anthem, Zadok the Priest, a setting of King David's words: And let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him there king over Israel: and blow ye with the trumpet, and say, God save king Solomon (I Kings 1:38).
As we gather this morning to pray for all those who govern in the name of Her Majesty the Queen, may our prayer echo that of King Solomon in ancient times: May the Lord bestow upon you an understanding mind to govern His people, to discern between good and evil, and may you walk before the Lord in faithfulness, in righteousness, and uprightness of heart, in great and steadfast love (I Kings 3:5-10). Amen.
God bless Canada.