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Father de Souza: Why secular Canada needs religion

The future of the nation may depend on the role of religion in the common life, according to Father Raymond de Souza. People of faith who live that faith out daily contribute greatly to society.

In mid-December, the Canadian Club of Hamilton, Ontario hosted a talk by de Souza entitled “Should there be room in secular Canada for Religion?” Fr. de Souza is a respected Catholic parish priest, National Post columnist, university instructor and chaplain for the Queen’s University Golden Gaels football team. He is also the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a “journal of faith in our common life” published by Cardus (cardus.ca/convivium).

De Souza believes that there is undoubtedly room in secular Canada for religion. The challenge, however, is that today we need to make this argument in a way that we did not need to do in the past. It is simply not as obvious to others that the religious voice is needed.

During his talk, de Souza focused on the history of Canada, reminding his audience that Canadians can’t understand the history of their country without referencing religion (even if this is not at all apparent in government publications and in many historical descriptions). He also noted that today’s pressing issues involve religion. The future of the nation may depend on the role of religion in the common life.

The role of religion
Father de Souza reviewed a number of key moments in Canadian history, highlighting the central role played by religion and religious beliefs – particularly Christian beliefs. At Confederation, one of the key concerns for the provinces was religious practice and identity. Quebec’s involvement in the War of 1812 had religious roots; it refused to join the U.S. revolution because revolutionaries opposed the tolerance of religious liberty for Catholics in Quebec. The formation of credit unions, the women’s suffrage movement and universal health care cannot be accurately understood without recognizing the role played by religion and religious beliefs.

Despite strong opposition to religion in the public sector today, Fr. de Souza reiterated that religion needs to continue to play a part. Many of the leading issues Canada faces today are moral and spiritual issues (the status of life, prostitution laws, the environment and energy policies, for example). He stressed that it is not possible to have a serious moral debate if you can’t include spiritual considerations. The questions and issues that dominate the secular agenda are moral issues, and the voice of religion is a needed part of the public discourse.

Advancing the dialogue
I wanted to hear more. Fr. de Souza honoured the diversity of his audience and the limited time slot he was given, and focused on making a compelling case for the role of Christian faith in Canadian history. But his presentation left me with two key questions: Why has Christianity lost its cultural influence? And what should we do about it?

As a former Christian high school teacher, I often challenged my students to consider the way Christians are perceived by others. In my own experience now in a PhD program in a public university, it is clear that the church has a public relations problem. While many of the Christians I know are caring, other-oriented, genuine believers who earnestly desire to authentically live out their faith, it is also clear that, in general, Christians are often mistrusted, marginalized and mocked.

One of the first courses in my PhD program focused on issues of marginalization in Western culture (slavery, First Nation peoples, women, LGBTQ). While I may bemoan the fact that a culture that appears to seek pluralism and actively combats marginalization appears to be oblivious to the fact that they often end up marginalizing Christianity and run the risk of missing out completely on the gospel message . . . I really can’t blame them. History reveals that Christians have been active participants in many of the primary instances of marginalization. Many good Christians owned slaves. And Christians were often directly involved in running residential schools for First Nations children, in subduing and limiting the rights and freedoms of women, and in direct and emotion-laden opposition to individuals struggling with gender and sexual identity. And these same Christians often had the best of intentions and fully believed that they had God’s blessing and authority!

The problem with the world is me
As I pondered the fact that Father de Souza needed to say “yes, there is room in Canada for the voice of religion,” I was struck by the fact that, to a large extent, Christians have silenced our own voices in cultural dialogue. Too often, our words and actions do not match our intentions. And our voices are silenced as a result. When the voices of Christians are silenced, Christ suffers.

We tend to look outward at our culture and blame cultural institutions for cutting us out of the conversation. But that overlooks a more important issue, potently captured by the Christian rock band, Downhere in “The Problem”:

Everybody’s wondering how the
world could get this way
If God is good, and how it could be
filled with so much pain
It’s not the age-old mystery we made
it out to be
Yeah, there’s a problem with the
And the problem with the world is me.

How do non-Christians view us? When a group of 16 to 29-year-olds were surveyed, they picked words like hypocritical, judgmental, naïve, sheltered and anti-homosexual to describe us (Kinnaman and Lyons in UnChristian: What a new generation thinks about Christianity, and why it really matters).  A 2013 Barna study examined the perception of hypocrisy in Christians, concluding that most of us are much more like Pharisees than Christ.

This is painful to consider. I suspect that had I grown up in Israel at the time of Christ, I would have been a Pharisee. And I would have called for Christ’s death, because he so clearly defied my expectations and perceptions of what it meant to follow God in that culture at that time. My heart aches for the church today because so many of the Christians I know are Christ-like, and they earnestly seek to be faithful and obedient and loving in their interactions with others. But this is not always how we come across, despite the best of intentions.

We have some work to do to rebuild our reputations. But it is not about us. It is about Christ . . . and about the ability of non-believers to come to see and know him for who he really is. And it must start with authentic relationships characterized by authentic care. Grace and love must be communicated. Gabe Lyons addresses this powerfully in The Next Christians: The good news about the end of Christian America (2010), the follow-up to UnChristian. The “next Christians” are characterized by authentic relationality and a steadfast determination to love God and love others. They live out their faith in their daily lives, and contribute to the common good.

Father de Souza reminded us that religion played a foundational role in the development of the Canadian nation and identity. His words also remind us that the Christian voice is needed in the complex and multi-faceted moral and spiritual challenges we face today. I believe that we must be more aware of the reputation of Christians, and much more sensitive to the perceived disconnect between our intentions and our actions. We must do a better job paying more than theoretical lip service to the fact that ALL people are God’s children, both those who are a part of and apart from God’s family.  


  • Sean is Assistant Professor of Education at Redeemer and former News Editor for Christian Courier. Sean’s research focuses on the communication of educational care. He appreciates CC’s cultural relevance, Biblical distinctiveness and willingness to address the complexity of living with hope and courage in a broken world.

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