By B.C. Catholic Staff, Canadian Catholic News
[Vancouver – CCN] – When more than 1,000 people filled a downtown Toronto theatre Oct. 3 for the largest, non-partisan, live-audience event of the federal election campaign, it was a gratifying moment for Matthew Marquardt. His fledgling organization Catholic Conscience had a role in making it happen.
Marquardt is president of Catholic Conscience, the new kid on the block of political action groups in Canada, and his organization has been partnering with the Archdiocese of Toronto in preparing citizens for political participation and supporting them in engaging civic society.
This election, the organization is distributing “Conscience Cards,” one-page explanations of Catholic social teaching and how it relates to issues, as well as party platform analyses.
It also launched a Catholic get-out-the-vote campaign in Toronto. Sunday, Sept. 22, was Catholic Action Day, and CC worked with groups and parishes to have homilies on the importance of voting and contributing as Catholic citizens.
The get-out-the-vote effort is timely considering the low numbers of Catholics who have voted in past elections. Angus Reid reports non-practising Catholics voted in higher numbers than weekly Mass-goers in 2015.
Marquardt says the fact the Toronto debate’s 1,000 free tickets were snapped up within 48 hours “speaks to a deep hunger in the Catholic community for more civic and political engagement through the faith.”
The organization has high aspirations, hoping to spread across Canada and eventually to other Western democratic nations. “Everywhere the Holy Spirit and Mary, the Chairwoman of our Board of Patron Saints, can help us reach,” said Marquardt.
They’re already gearing up for the next four-year cycle of municipal, provincial, and federal elections, in Ontario and beyond. One hopeful sign is that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon has asked to distribute Catholic Conscience material to its 94 parishes (as well as to adapt the Catholic Conscience resources as a printable resource). The Catholic Conscience organization also has eyes on next year’s U.S. presidential elections. “We seem to be gaining momentum,” Marquardt said.
Considering the Ontario-based organization only made its initial appearance in the 2014 Ontario election and the 2015 federal campaign, it’s not a bad start.
“Catholic Conscience has really been the work of the Holy Spirit,” said Marquart, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Parish in Toronto where in 2008 he and another parishioner were urged by their pastor to start a parish social justice committee.
As committee members gained new skills and understanding, Marquardt was in a lay formation program developing a new understanding of Matthew 25 and the parable of the talents. He ended the program by giving a 15-minute talk on Rights and Responsibilities of Catholics in Elections.
For Marquardt, who has a background in policing, engineering, and business law in Canada and the U.S., the convergence of what he was learning was powerful. “It became clear to me the best answer to the recent devolution of politics in the democratic West,” as well as growing secularism, consumerism, and individualism, was the social teachings of the Catholic Church.
Working with members of Pax Christi and its mission of promoting non-violence, the committee organized all-candidate meetings at Toronto parishes for the 2014 Ontario municipal and provincial elections.
“Those worked very well for a time,” said Marquardt. Emphasizing respectful, non-partisan discussion, they aimed at “shifting the whole democratic conversation toward the Gospels and the social teachings of the Catholic Church.” Their efforts “proved to be very appealing both to Catholics and to candidates for public office.”
They got a further boost when in preparation for the 2015 federal election they received encouraging responses from major candidates like MPs Chrystia Freeland and Adam Vaughan.
“Many candidates expressed relief at being able to answer questions and share their views in a respectful, non-partisan environment,” said Marquardt. “Our audiences helped wonderfully, by listening respectfully and in many cases taking notes.”
Over time, however, reality crept in, as parties began to discourage candidates from engaging with community groups and tightly controlling party messages from the top.
It became more and more difficult to get candidates to attend meetings, he said, and on several occasions candidates who had accepted invitations backed out due to “scheduling conflicts.”
One Saturday in February 2017, a discouraged Marquardt went to morning Rosary at his parish and “consecrated the whole thing to Mary.”
“As usual, Mary did not disappoint,” he said. Within a month, several young professionals – lawyers, students, and project managers among them – had shown interest. A few weeks later, a bright, energetic and qualified young man named Brendan Steven appeared.
Steven had been involved in federal party politics and worked as a Conservative speech writer before becoming troubled by what he saw as an extremely toxic political environment.
Marquardt and Steven both recognized “too many parties, too many politicians, were focused much more intently on dividing and conquering voters, with a view to gaining and then clinging desperately to elected office, than on serving the common good through their constituents.”
Marquardt and Steven found themselves in very close agreement on the nature of issues facing democracy in Canada and elsewhere, and under Steven’s inspiration began to take on a much broader mandate.
The organization was rebranded as Catholic Conscience in 2017, shifting focus from individual candidates to political parties with the idea of forming Catholics in the full range of the social teachings of the Church and sending them out for participation in all aspects of civic life.”
Within weeks members were giving talks on Catholics’ obligation to political participation. They shared the Church’s views of proper organization of society and social institutions, from government to business to media. They explained responsible approaches to news consumption and effective service as a Catholic in a political party.
Amid the rise of growing hatred and polarization in politics – one recent poll suggested 25 per cent of Canadians “hate” their political opponents – CC emphasized “loving thy neighbour and respectful dialogue and collaboration in politics, in the spirit of Pope Francis and the Most Gentle Shepherd.”
It’s a long-overdue message, and broad-based support is coming from all age groups and walks of life, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, he said.
“Our message is directed to all people of good will. And there are a lot of those who agree fundamentally with the Church’s moral and social teachings.”
For Marquardt, the “crowning jewel” of the organization so far has been its relationship with the Archdiocese of Toronto, which has been supportive from the start. Last spring, discussing the upcoming federal electioln with the communications office, CC planted the seed for what would become the successful archdiocese-sponsored debate at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The organization also provided about 30 blue-shirted members who served as the bulk of ushers and volunteers for the event.