Cardinal Ouellet and Archbishop Prendergast’s recent call for aid to be provided to pregnant women who want to keep their babies pretty much got dismissed the same way as Cardinal Ouellet’s statements a week before, albeit with less venom. There was nothing startling in the remarks themselves, but the statement of Cardinal Ouellet, in particular, drew an unusual degree of hostility from politicians and journalists, with only a few of the latter taking the opportunity to uphold his right to free speech. The columnist who wished the cardinal “a slow and painful death” was extreme, but not exceptional in his derision.

In researching 25 years’ worth of anti-Catholic hostility in the media, I was struck by how often such prejudice is sparked by Church participation in debates on the moral issues of the day. The reaction is probably strongest on abortion, but also colours discussions about the re-definition of marriage, euthanasia, faith-based schools and bioethical research. No one minds too much when the Church tells us to help the poor, but statements about when life begins or what we mean by family are often lightening-rods. Nor is prime time entertainment immune; while the Church is mostly ignored, writers know they can always count on the Catholics when they need a tireless charity worker, backdrops featuring sacred art and music, or a deranged person to bomb an abortion clinic.

In my view, this prejudice is more serious than a few ill-chosen words here and there, or an episode of Law and Order. The notion that faith has no place in public life is further-reaching than that, and whenever I speak or write about it I usually only have to look at a few weeks worth of newspapers to find new examples. In the last days of May we had the specter of some MPs reacting in shock when a few other MPs met in the parliamentary dining room with Msgr. Fred Dolan, head of Opus Dei in Canada. Josee Legault of the Montreal Gazette reported that the meeting was further proof of an ultra-right conspiracy on the part of the Harper government, while NDP MP Pat Martin offered that those Opus Dei guys “give me the creeps…I can’t imagine why a member of parliament would invite [Opus Dei] for a meeting on Parliament Hill,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t attend anything associated with them.”

He’s not the only one whose alarm bells go off when a conservative Catholic group is in town; Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, brought it up in Question Period. He named two Conservative party volunteers  who apparently are members of Opus Dei, noted that “a Conservative” invited Msgr. Dolan to the dining room and demanded that the Prime Minister “admit that his policy is influenced” by such people. As Ezra Levant points out in his blog, these volunteers weren’t even known for their religion or religious opinions until Mr. Duceppe took it upon himself to discuss their private lives in Parliament.

Isn’t it almost impossible to imagine public officials proclaiming that Muslims, Jews, ethnic or racial minorities give them “the creeps,” or that they should not be participating in public life? Any that did so would be censured and probably voted out of office next election. But when it’s the Catholics, consequences are minimal.

True, it isn’t only Catholic Christians who get targeted in the fear-mongering. I have not read Marci MacDonald’s The Armageddon Factor, the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, but according to its publicity material the book “shows that the Canadian Christian right — infuriated by the legalization of same-sex marriage and the increasing secularization of society — has been steadily and stealthily building organizations, alliances and contacts that have put them close to the levers of power and put the government of Canada in their debt.”

Given this supposedly “indebted” government’s clear and public record on any re-visiting of same sex marriage, and very public commitment to the status quo on abortion within Canada,  I would find it hard to build a case that the “Christian right” is winning. Some grant cutbacks have pleased social conservatives, but it’s just as likely that the cuts were motivated by savings, not philosophy. I suspect the author’s real beef is that Christian groups are inclined to speak out, perhaps more than they once did, on the moral touch points of the day, and like many others in the media, she would rather they didn’t.

We don’t tolerate attempts to mock or marginalize other groups, but Catholic-bashing continues to be fair game.

– Joanne McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.

© The Catholic Register, June 10, 2010  

Bias and the eye of the beholder, Holy Post, June 18, 2010