Calgary bishop Frederick Henry says Christians should strive both to find a place in heaven and to make this world a better place.


Calgary bishop Frederick Henry says Christians should strive both to find a place in heaven and to make this world a better place.

December 24, 2012
Following is the text of Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry's catechesis on Evangelizing the Social and Political Order at the Dec. 6 session of Nothing More Beautiful at St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton.

As of September the rules regarding drinking and driving changed in the province of Alberta as the new .05 legislation took effect. We were repeatedly told that it is fine to share a bottle, have some fun and then drive home, as long as you stay within your limits.

However, except for a few journalists who have been gleefully test drinking in the company of police, there's hardly a soul who understands when the .05 moment arrives. Does it come after one stiff drink? Is it two or three?

I really didn't want to find out from the police at the roadside since from now on, a person who guesses wrong loses their licence and car for three days. Furthermore, speaking personally, I wouldn't want my picture in the Calgary Herald and/or the Calgary Sun informing everyone that I was charged with impaired driving.

The best advice is really quite simple – don't drink and drive. As you well know, some of us have been known to have had rare brushes with the authorities on our way home from the odd social session over the years.

A couple of nights ago, I was out for supper with some friends and we had pre-dinner drinks, a couple of bottles of wine with the meal and an after-dinner brandy or two. Knowing full well I may have been slightly over the limit, I did something I've never done before – I took a bus home.

Sure enough, I passed a DUI checkpoint, but as it was a bus they waved it through. I arrived home safely without incident, which was a real surprise, as I have never driven a bus before and am not sure where I got it.

In the Catholic world that I grew up in, it was often said that the one thing that mattered was to save your soul. This present world was seen as a danger to that, and so, at the end of each Mass, we used to pray that we would be safely conducted through "this valley of tears."

The Second Vatican Council presented Catholics with a different way of looking at this world. Instead of regarding our present world as a "valley of tears," we were encouraged to care for this present world. The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World begins with the words: "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age . . . these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ."

It continues: "Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed.

"They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator" (Gaudium et Spes 27).


The document goes on: "While we are warned that it profits persons nothing if they gain the whole world, yet lose themselves, the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one" (GS 39).

The prophet Micah exhorts the Israelites to repent of their sins. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says prophecy causes Temple authorities and ordinary people to become uncomfortable.

The prophet Micah exhorts the Israelites to repent of their sins. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says prophecy causes Temple authorities and ordinary people to become uncomfortable.

This raises a question for us. Where should our efforts be directed: toward getting to the next world, or toward making this world a better place?

In some parts of the Catholic world this contrast is very visible today. For example, in some parts of Latin America, there are bishops, priests and laity who are in movements preoccupied with individual spirituality. Their emphasis is on a personal prayer experience.

Other bishops, priests and lay people are devoted to movements concerned with social transformation. Their emphasis is on applying the Gospel to this world in order to change it.

So, what is being a Christian all about? Is it about getting to heaven or is it about improving this world? Is it about spirituality or is it about justice?

Clearly, it is about both and, indeed, both together. We can't improve this world if we aren't trying to get to heaven, and we can't get to heaven if we aren't trying to improve this world.

The great 20th century apostle of the poor in the United States, Dorothy Day, whose cause for canonization is underway, writes: "The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers and sisters with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say 'Now I have begun.'"

Without this personal conversion, this conversion of the heart, which involves a life of prayer, we can do nothing that counts as genuine Christian action. At the same time, the bishops gathered in Rome for their 1971 synod, declared: "Action for the sake of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us to be a constitutive element of the preaching of the Gospel."

Much depends on our image of the Church. The Church is not just a community to give us personal peace, a place to which we can retreat from the burdens and troubles of life to be soothed and calmed. The last thing we want, if this is how we view the Church, is a sermon that talks about politics, or a liturgy that interferes with our personal conversation with God.


This very private view of the Church is opposed to the teaching of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, that we can no longer be content with "a merely individualistic morality" (GS 30).

Dorothy Day writes, "To be in church isn't to be calmed down. I'm worked up in church."

The Word of God is a two edged sword – it consoles but it also challenges because it is a prophetic word. No one describes prophecy better than Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says that prophecy is born of the pathos of God. This divine pathos or grief – too much for both God and the prophets to ignore – contributes to making prophetic teaching bothersome and troublesome; for prophecy causes Temple authorities and ordinary people to be uncomfortable.

As Heschel describes the situation, they read the Bible for a sense of order, but instead of getting it, they are thrown into: "Orations about widows and orphans, about corruption of judges and affairs of the marketplace.

St. Thomas More

St. Thomas More

"Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansion of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum. They make much ado about things, lavishing excessive language upon trifling subjects."


Then Heschel makes his point: "The things that horrify the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world."

Prophets make Temple authorities and ordinary people uncomfortable. They speak up. One of the most dramatic examples of this occurs in the familiar New Testament text: "When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.

"He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'

"And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4.16-21).

If we read on in the text, we read of grumbling and murmuring on the part of the congregation. And as Jesus develops his reflection on the text of Isaiah in relation to what it means for that ordinary congregation, they start to murmur the Aramaic equivalent of "Who does he think he is?"

They move to expel him, the movement catches fire, and they attempt to throw him out bodily, not only from the synagogue but from Nazareth and even from life. And why? Because he is calling them to justice.

Nor is the Church a kind of community to ensure social peace, a spiritual policeman, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the government as a defender of the status quo. This image is a constant temptation for the Church, and there have been times when Church leaders have accepted it, sometimes with disastrous results for the Church's mission.

Rather, the Church is a community engaged in bringing about change, as Pope Paul VI pictures it in his 1975 document on evangelization. It is the yeast of the Gospel, and as such is here to bring about necessary changes in everything – human persons, cultures, social structures, public relationships – everything! This also means that conversion must be both personal and social; it must affect both our heart and our attitudes.


The Rev. Jesse Jackson once remarked, "When I pray 'Thy kingdom come', I mean that Atlanta should look like heaven." When I pray 'Thy kingdom come,' I mean that Calgary should look like heaven."

There is no genuine prayer that does not concern itself with the common good. At the same time, the very first thing each of us must do for the common good is pray for our own personal conversion.

Our society glamourizes the rugged individual, says Bishop Frederick Henry.


Our society glamourizes the rugged individual, says Bishop Frederick Henry.

In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II wrote, "Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of 'new heavens' and 'a new earth' (Revelation 21.1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today.

"I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world. Theirs is the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God's plan.

"Many problems darken the horizon of our time. We need but think of the urgent need to work for peace, to base relationships between peoples on solid premises of justice and solidarity, and to defend human life from conception to its natural end.

"And what should we say of the thousand inconsistencies of a 'globalized' world where the weakest, the most powerless and the poorest appear to have so little hope. It is in this world that Christian hope must shine forth. For this reason too, the Lord wished to remain with us in the Eucharist, making his presence in meal and sacrifice the promise of a humanity renewed by his love.


"Significantly, in their account of the Last Supper, the Synoptics recount the institution of the Eucharist, while the Gospel of John relates, as a way of bringing out its profound meaning, the account of the 'washing of the feet,' in which Jesus appears as the teacher of communion and of service (John 13.1-20).

"The Apostle Paul, for his part, says that it is 'unworthy' of a Christian community to partake of the Lord's Supper amid division and indifference towards the poor

(1 Corinthians 11.17-22, 27-34). Proclaiming the death of the Lord 'until he comes' (1 Corinthians 11.26) entails that all who take part in the Eucharist be committed to changing their lives and making them in a certain way completely 'Eucharistic.'"

To be a Christian means to commit our entire self, in every way, to Christ. To be a member of 21st century Canadian society means to accommodate our lives to the world in which we live.

Can we do both? Or is our culture the enemy of our faith, something we have to oppose if we are going to be faithful to the Gospel? The effort to answer that question brings us to the very heart of the matter.

Catholic social teaching speaks of "caring for the world" and of looking for the "signs of the Spirit" in our world.

What perhaps was new for many Catholics in all this was the assertion that God is at work in the world, and not just in the Church. The hand of God could be detected in some "secular" movements, such as initiatives for peace, efforts to recognize the rights of minorities and expressions of concern for the protection of the environment. Catholics should therefore work with such "secular" efforts and try to assist them.

"With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine Word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage" (Gaudium et Spes, 44).

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

At the same time, Catholic social documents call our attention to major currents in our world and our culture that are opposed to the Gospel. As followers of Christ, we must reject such currents. Pope Paul VI wrote, "The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the tragedy of our time" (Evangelization in the Modern World, 20).

Four of the more influential features of our culture from which Catholics should distance ourselves, are the following.

Individualism – Our society glamourizes "the rugged individual", and praises aggressiveness. It is a spirit that is evident in everything from cutthroat business practices to selfish driving habits. In contrast, Christians should remind society that there is no such thing as a "pure individual." Humans are persons, and persons are inherently social. To be "you" means to be part of a family, part of a particular ethnic group, part of a civic community, and so on. These groups "define" us, make us, in many ways, who we are.


At the same time, we have responsibilities to all of them, and in turn we give a shape to them. It is ironic that the "myth of the individual" is deliberately used today to promote the view that religion is a purely private matter with no place in the public forum. In fact, our faith has social consequences, and so is bound to contribute to the shape of our culture.

Materialism – One of the most harmful lies our culture has continued to tell us since the 17th century is that humans find their fulfillment in possessions. Newspapers and television ads, for example, urge us constantly to "consume," to "purchase."

Yet we are not just consumers. We are human beings who find our fulfillment in "using" the goods of this earth as means to intelligent goals. What matters in life is to pursue worthwhile goals, to carry out roles that make our world and society somehow better.

Relativism – It is common to have people ask "Is it true for you?" or "Is it right for you?" Yet guides for conduct cannot be true for one person and not true for another. What we have in common is our humanity. What develops or perfects that humanity is dictated by our common nature, not by what we "feel" like doing.

Truth is something objective. "Facts," it is said, "are stubborn things." You can't ignore them.

Secularism – Reflecting on the terrible attacks on human life in our world, from genocide to wars of aggression and terrorism, from abortion to euthanasia, from arbitrary imprisonment to disgraceful working conditions, Pope John Paul II sought the roots of the struggle between "the culture of life" and the "culture of death."

He concluded: "We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism" (The Gospel of Life, 21). "When the sense of God is lost, the sense of man is also threatened and poisoned" (22).


What needs especially to concern us about these trends in our culture is that they are not just faults of individuals. They are features of many of our social and economic structures. As such, they surround us, envelop us and seduce us.

So, Christ or culture? It is a matter of careful discernment. We need to love our world; we must recognize and affirm whatever is true and good in it, looking especially for signs of God's action in our culture. Much of Catholic social teaching deals with ways in which we can do this. We also need to oppose the trends in our culture that work against true human dignity. In a word, we will, at least from time to time, be a highly visible "contrast society" or countercultural.


I believe St. Thomas More, the Man for All Seasons, is a good mentor for all of us. Throughout his life he was an affectionate and faithful husband and father, deeply involved in his children's religious, moral and intellectual education.

His house offered a welcome to his children's spouses and his grandchildren, and was always open to his many young friends in search of the truth or of their own calling in life. Family life also gave him ample opportunity for prayer in common and lectio divina, as well as for happy and wholesome relaxation. Thomas attended daily Mass in the parish church, but the austere penances which he practised were known only to his immediate family.

St. Thomas More distinguished himself by his constant fidelity to legitimate authority and institutions precisely in his intention to serve not power but the supreme ideal of justice. His life teaches us that government is above all an exercise of virtue.

Unwavering in his rigorous moral stance, this English statesman placed his own public activity at the service of the person, especially if that person was weak or poor; he dealt with social controversies with a superb sense of fairness; he was vigorously committed to favouring and defending the family; he supported the all-round education of the young.

Leaders lead by their example as much as by their skill, says Bishop Fred Henry.


Leaders lead by their example as much as by their skill, says Bishop Fred Henry.

His profound detachment from honours and wealth, his serene and joyful humility, his balanced knowledge of human nature and of the vanity of success, his certainty of judgment rooted in faith: these all gave him that confident inner strength that sustained him in adversity and in the face of death. His sanctity shone forth in his martyrdom, but it had been prepared by an entire life of work devoted to God and neighbour.

The late Pope John Paul II said, "The unity of life of the lay faithful is of the greatest importance: indeed they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life. Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfill his will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ" (Christifideles Laici, 17).

Pope Benedict also reminds us that "authentic human development concerns the whole person in every dimension. Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing space." (Caritas et Veritate, 11)

First, effective involvement in the social and political order cannot be severed from the trustworthiness of personal character. Ethics and integrity do matter and not just superficially.

Leaders need to be believed. They have to engender trust not only in their policies but also in their judgment. They must create a climate of faithfulness to shared commitments among colleagues and supporters. Thus, leadership derives credibility from example, and not simply from pronouncements.

In times of crisis, people follow courage rather than charm. All too frequently in our culture, "successful leadership" has meant skillfully segregating public policy from personal integrity.

But morality in politics is not defined solely by the pragmatic effectiveness of policies. Conversely, morality cannot exclusively be seen in terms of personal moral behaviour that turns a blind eye to the sins of social injustice.

A firewall between the personal and public dimensions of our lives is a secular fiction, and it is dangerous to both people and politics. Faith nurtures a healthy congruity between one's inner and outer lives. Its understanding of sin and vision of wholeness weave together the social and the personal. Any discerning ethic of leadership does the same.

Second, a poll-driven politics lacks a moral foundation and vision. Political leaders should not trust their pollsters more than they trust their pastors. Some leaders have the moral and political authority to shape, and even change, public opinion. For that, a moral compass is needed - a compass whose needle points toward where we, as a society, should be heading, rather than simply toward the next election.

Too many politicians today try to govern by engaging in perpetual campaigns. As a result, their overriding principle becomes satisfying 51 per cent of the voters rather than serving a compelling moral and political vision for our society. Style is not more important than substance; despite the commercial slogan, image isn't everything.

Third, sexual ethics are important. One doesn't have to be prudish or puritanical to worry about a sexual ethic based on the consumer model. The commodification of sexuality in the media for purposes of advertising and entertainment, and its degradation in exploitative or manipulative relationships, is indeed a sin because such an ethic can be so abusive and destructive of the human spirit.


A real ethical choice today is between a sexuality that is merely recreational and one that is covenantal. Sexuality is meant to be enormously enjoyable and fulfilling, but because of how fragmenting or integrating sexual intimacy can be for human beings, the context of the relationship and the commitment or lack of commitment it contains are of obvious significance.

Value-free sexual ethics have had devastating consequences for our society, especially for the young, and most brutally for the poor. Leaders don't create the nation's declining sexual ethics, but it's tragic when their actions merely reveal and help support them.

The question "What's more important, a leader's personal morality or his or her public policy?" may be the wrong one. The more important issue may be the connection between the personal and the public. The idea that public leadership can be partitioned off from personal integrity is a dangerous illusion.

The fact that several past political leaders have gotten away with doing so hardly establishes a reliable pattern of leadership for the future. Old styles of leadership are now passing, and new models are already in formation.

The task of leaders today is to articulate vision, build trust and create an open climate of integrity that facilitates decisions. Anyone who wants to be a leader in the 21st century needs to sustain values, nurture community and clarify our common mission. That is equally true for an executive, a principal, a parent, a prime minister, a parish priest or a pope.

In the end, leaders lead by behaviour and not just by skill. In any institution, people yearn for leadership that is morally seamless. Yes, they want imaginative and effective policies. But they also desire leaders whose examples walk their talk. A healthier blend of talent and character is needed to shape our next generation of leaders.


Pope Benedict has repeatedly said: "The world of politics and governance requires a real revolution of love in which citizens are inspired by the Christian values of solidarity and truth to work for the common good."

Those who aspire to serve the social and political dimensions of society need the ability to navigate the troubled waters of their inner lives as well as the turbulent seas of public discourse. If institutions and societies are ultimately shaped by both the personal and the public ethics of their leaders, the concept of "spiritual formation" should become increasingly important as a component of the education needed for leadership development. Ultimately, personal integrity is vital to public trust.

Leadership instills vision, values, trust, mission and community. These rest upon habits of the heart. Perhaps the main question to ask about leaders concerns the trustworthiness of their moral compass, upon which all their judgments depend. Effective leadership is finally sustained not just by what people say but by who they are.

Again in the words of Pope Benedict, "The Church concentrates on the formation of the disciples of Christ in order that they may ever increasingly become witnesses of his presence, any and everywhere."


"It is up to the lay faithful to demonstrate concretely in their personal and family life, in social cultural and political life that the faith enables them to see reality in a new and profound way, and to transform the true loftiness of his being towards God: that charity in truth is the most effective force that is capable of changing the world; that the Gospel gives a guarantee of freedom and a message of liberation, that the fundamental principles of the social doctrine of the Church such as the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity and solidarity are extremely relevant and valuable in order to support new paths of development in service to the whole person and to all of humanity.

"It is also the duty of the laity to participate actively in political life in a manner consistently in accordance with the Church's teaching, bringing their well-founded reasons and high ideals into the democratic debate and into the search for a broad consensus among all those who care about the defence of life and freedom, the safe guarding of truth and the good of the family, solidarity with the needy and the crucial search for the common good." (Address to the Pontifical Council of the Laity 2010).


One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle is between two 'wolves' inside all of us. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

"The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for moment and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?" The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."