Menzies: Nurturing the Conversations that Hold Us Together

November 9, 2011
Calgary Herald

Societies are founded in the common life of a family, formed between mother and child in the womb and nurtured ever forward. The bonds become looser and more strained as their borders expand from the private, nuclear unit and that, in turn, demands the cultivation of the common ground that is vital to a healthy public square.

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Among the great joys of my life were the dinner conversations shared with my father. They swirled in a world of politics, philosophy, theology, western aspiration/alienation, the meaning of change and the precious nature of useful tradition.

Not everyone was as fascinated by the profundity of our thinking as we were, of course, but I miss their ebb, their flow, their depth and, yes, their provocation. Dad died two years ago, and while I remain lonely for his voice, except when I hear it in mine, that which he imbued in me—a fascination with the vitality of the public square—has only quickened. I'd like to think the same wonder flows yet in the veins of my children who, while their views may diverge dramatically, share in the common life of a family.

The branches of that family stretch from coast to coast and across the Atlantic whence they all once came. Most of its members could speak for years on the issues that fascinated my father and me and never agree on a single point. Most would probably just as soon not speak of them at all. They vote in different ways, have a variety of views on God and see the country and the world through multiple windows of perception.

But, when they gather as they did this summer for two family weddings, their differences are set aside (or at least tolerated) because they share a common life and love.

Societies are founded in the common life of a family, formed between mother and child in the womb and nurtured ever forward. The bonds become looser and more strained as their borders expand from the private, nuclear unit and that, in turn, demands the cultivation of the common ground that is vital to a healthy public square.

This is why the new Cardus periodical publication Convivium (faith in our common life), is so vital to the sustenance—some would say resuscitation—of the conversations that hold us together. Its publisher is a friend and former colleague, Peter Stockland, a past editor of Reader's Digest, editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette and (surely the most distinguished item on his resume) former editorial page editor of the Calgary Herald. Its editor is Bishop Carroll graduate Father Raymond de Souza, who manages to maintain a single persona despite multiple roles as economist, Kingston-area parish priest, Roman Catholic chaplain at Queen's University and regular columnist for the National Post.

Its aspiration is to be a useful vehicle in the restoration of a rich public square in which all perspectives—including those based in faith—feel welcome and engage in reasoned and persuasive debate. As Father de Souza said recently at an event in Calgary, once we lose faith in our common life, all we have left is fundamentalism. And fundamentalism in all its manifestations—religious, ideological and secular—has nothing to offer to debate. It eschews reason and persuasion in its definition to force itself onto others. It is, if you catch my drift, an unhelpful and extreme resolution to the tension between freedoms and order that is the hallmark of mature, stable liberal democracies.

Convivium (a place of conviviality such as the dinner table once shared with Dad) clearly has its feet founded in the Roman Catholic philosophical tradition, and over the years, Stockland and de Souza have established their pedigree. Asking if Stockland is inclined to a conservative view is, it must be said, very much a "is the Pope Catholic?" kind of question. Yet both men are aware through their histories and through the nature of the Convivium project itself that polemic requires the enrichment of diversity. Thus were their pluralistic aspirations laid bare with the inclusion in their premier edition of Bill Blaikie's lament for the social gospel movement that once so inspired the Canadian left.

"Actions...are very rarely rooted in a spontaneous idea," says Cardus president Michael Van Pelt. "Most often they're rooted in ideas that have been bandied about for many years. Poetry is written about them. Debates rage in the pub over them. And then suddenly, they're done. But the conversation came first. We want Convivium to be a place where that conversation takes place in Canada."

It is, for now, unlikely that this project will make the custodians of these and other similar pages tremble, but it may inspire. Its aim is to revive the public nature of intellectual traditions that were once the meat and drink of our discourse. There is little evidence, based on its initial edition, that it will do anything less.