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Behind the mitre: the moral leadership crisis in the Canadian Catholic Church.

The revenge of Tony Clarke

Tony Clarke was a member of the Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) from 1972 to 1994, becoming co-director as well as majordomo of the commission's most important projects. One of the few laypeople allowed into the inner sanctum of Church politics, he showed remarkable skill and finesse in the rarified world of purple piping. He made sure that he was on the right side of the right bishops; he had a nose for the timely cause; and he positioned himself perfectly on the high moral ground of left-wing morality. For nearly all of his twenty-one years as a Church civil servant, Clarke was unassailable.

But nothing lasts forever. As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, and his principal ecclesiastical patrons were no longer ruling the roost, he insisted on playing by his own rules. Like many a zealous reformer before him, Clarke thought that he was ahead of the bishops and insisted with all the certitude of a prophet from ancient Israel that the bishops catch up to his style of thinking. Clarke was fired from his position following an adolescent antic at the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It was the last desperate act in a fast-fading career.

He claims that his dismissal was for political reasons. One wonders why it took so long. He claims that this book is not an act of revenge. It certainly reads like one. He leaves no mitre unturned in his attack on a wide range of prelates who had the gall not to share his social justice politics or who deviated from the orthodoxy of his department. Clarke wants his readers to believe that his voice is the voice of the true Church, and if the Church does not listen to his call, it does not have much of a future. Where have we heard that one before? It is a charge that has been repeated by every dissident for the past thirty years.

Clarke brought two interesting pieces of baggage to the CCCB. He was a lapsed Episcopalian when he was first taken on by the Conference. And he was very much a product of a type of late 1960s activism, which began honestly enough but quickly fell in love with its own opinions and was either unable or unwilling to adopt itself to changing times and evolving circumstances. His world has passed, but he refuses to let go of its ghost.

In hindsight, it was a mistake to have given him the job. Only those with a strong commitment to the faith and a spiritual capacity to recognize their own sinfulness should be allowed to carry out the work of our bishops.

Behind the Mitre is essentially a self-serving obituary for a generation that joined the establishment but quickly lost its way in the bureaucratic maze and is now anxious to blame everyone but themselves for the failure of their ideas to survive the scrutiny of the world. No bureaucrat ever died for his beliefs. Clarke worked too long in the fog of coalitions and committees, statements and briefs, policy papers and official pronouncements, and declarations and denunciations. It was time for him to drop his jet-set social justice campaign (he was forever flying somewhere) and poke his nose into the real Church, where ordinary meat-and-potatoes Catholics show up for Mass, Participate in the liturgy, work hard on behalf of the poor and marginalized, and care passionately about righting the many wrongs in our society and the world at large.

No one has a monopoly on compassion. The real Church is also a place where people are too busy paying the bills to worry about the hothouse wranglings of what Cardinal Carter correctly called the "Ottawa curia." We are boring and bourgeois, but we will be around long after the Tony Clarkes of the Church have gone on to their next cause.

The one idea that hangs ad neuseam on practically every page of Behind the Mitre is the quite unsubstantiated claim that part of the Church's prophetic mission is to oppose free trade, and when the Catholic bishops in Canada failed to rise up against free trade with the United States and then NAFTA, they abandoned all sense of their moral leadership on economic issues. Strange as it may seem, this is a book about free trade and little else, despite the fact that he dresses up his tired and repetitious rhetoric with quotes from papal encyclicals, selective statistics and his one grand achievement, the 1983 publication of the bishops' Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis.

Along with his unfocussed harangue against any form of free trade, Clarke is thoroughly hostile to the free market, free enterprise, capitalism, transnational corporations, the banks, low inflation policies and the export economy. He despises the Business Council on National Issues, and Preston Manning, and the Reform Party. At the end of the day, he finds little to like about Canadian society. He is more at home dreaming about Mexico and Latin America.

But what does he want? Restricted trade? High inflation? Customs barriers? No participation in the global economy? The extinction of transnational companies? The nationalization of banks? He never really tells us. All we get is sugary pabulum about full employment.

There is no denying that Canada has severe economic problems. And the bishops in their role as moral leaders have a right and responsibility to remind our political and economic leaders of those truths about the human condition that transcend any party platform or bottom line.

But it is pure foolishness to blame free trade or business interests (or big unions for that matter) for all our woes and to put our hope in big government. Actually, big government is the problem. During the past twenty-five years, the mainstream political parties taxed, borrowed and spent our country into a gigantic hole of debt. Greedy for our money, they robbed us of our prosperity and mortgaged the future of our children and grandchildren, in the process hurting families, crippling the middle class, and making sure that the poor stay poor and dependent on government for handouts.

Behind the Mitre is not about any moral leadership crisis in the Catholic Church on economic matters. It is about the messy business of Church politics and the inevitable demise of the Social Affairs Commission under the leadership of Tony Clarke. There are some amusing and well-told stories about Cardinal Carter, Bishop Remi de Roo versus Conrad Black, the late Bishops Bernard Hubert and Adolphe Proulx, but they are not enough to save this book from imploding.
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
Words:1108
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