I received word on February 14 that my old friend father Andrew Britz had died of a heart attack in Saskatoon at age 71. I had known Andrew since the 1960s when I attended a boarding school run by the Benedictine monks at St. Peter’s Abbey near Humboldt, Saskatchewan. In the early 1980s Andrew became editor of the Prairie Messenger, a newspaper published by the monks since 1904.
I return to Saskatchewan every summer to visit friends and relatives and in 2008 I spent several hours with Andrew, by then ill with Parkinson’s disease. He asked if I would work with him to compile an anthology of his best writing during a long tenure as editor, which ended in 2004. Our collaboration resulted in a book called Truth to Power: The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk, which has been released by Kingsley Publishing of Calgary. It was a project that gave Andrew great pleasure in what were to be the twilight years of his life.
The book delves into debates and issues that have raged in Canadian church and society for the past twenty-five years: birth control, abortion, euthanasia, priestly celibacy, ordination of women, the church’s treatment of homosexuals, fundamentalism, ecumenism, sexual abuse, economic injustice, environmental abuse, and militarism. Andrew was, and remains, deeply committed to his church but he was fearless in speaking truth to popes and prime ministers, capitalists and clerics. His efforts were often not appreciated by those in power, not to mention some of his more traditional readers. There were discreet and at times public complaints about him to his abbot but Andrew’s monastic community protected him and allowed him to speak courageously. He called the church to a new age in the service of humanity.
Andrew had written perhaps 2000 editorials during his long and impressive tenure as editor. He asked Sister Marian Noll and Maureen Weber, two former colleagues at the Prairie Messenger, to help him winnow that number down, and then he and I reduced it even further. I suggested that we ask two prominent and knowledgeable Canadians to read the manuscript and to write chapters commenting on Andrew’s writing and why it remains important for church and society today. Dr. Mary Jo Leddy is well-known author and activist, and Dr. John Thompson, a sociologist, is the former principal of a St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan.
Thompson wrote this in his chapter analyzing Andrew’s work: “These editorials are engaging, eloquent and memorable in their language, subtle humour and clarity. They are words about the Word that is the Lord among us with which we fashion ourselves together in the Lord’s image as the People of God.”
Leddy wrote, “The editorials assembled in this book tackle hot button topics: birth control, abortion, condoms, clergy abuse, sexism in the church. But in a way that gave full weight to the substantial wisdom of the Catholic tradition. This book could be called a textbook in political discernment.”
Gregory Baum, the eminent theologian, has written a review of Truth to Power and described it as follows: “What is impressive is Britz’s thoughtful exploration of how the church understands itself and its mission in the world, based on the teaching of Vatican II. This book of practical wisdom deserves great praise.”
Here is a sampling drawn from a few of the editorials in Truth to Power:
The papacy: “Nothing that Christ said can be used to underpin the church’s hierarchical model of authority.”
The bishops: “The church needs some mavericks, even maverick bishops who do not hold exactly the ‘right’ position on celibacy, nuclear weapons, condoms and homosexuals.”
Lay people: “The laity is not present in the church for the clergy; the priesthood is for the people.”
Women in the church: “It is embarrassing to read what the great bishops and theologians of age after age in the church have had to say about women.”
Social justice: “The church seldom gets in trouble for proclaiming the importance of charity. Resentment mounts quickly, however, when the Gospel prompts its followers to strengthen the call for justice. ”
The environment: “A church based on sacraments should quite naturally be ecological.”
Birth Control: “To shore up teaching contained in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (On human life), the church has centralized authority as it has never been previously exercised in the church.”
Ecumenism: “Gone – forever we hope – is the day in which we can boast that the Catholic Church alone has the whole truth.”
Fundamentalism: A “[This] is about simple answers, answers freed from all humanization that comes from involvement in time and space, from dealing with life’s inevitable struggles.”
Vatican II: “Brilliantly conceived but abysmally executed.”
Should you wish to purchase Truth to Power, you can do so through the Prairie Messenger.
I last saw Father Andrew on a cold evening in November 2011. I had written a new book called Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Pubic Life. The monks at St. Peter’s agreed to host an event where the book was discussed. Andrew left his hospital bed in nearby Humboldt to attend the event and he did a 20-minute interview with me about the book’s contents. Despite his poor health, he was intellectually sharp and we had a good chat. It was the last time I was to see him. Father Andrew Britz. Rest in peace.
Another good man gone. I hope someone will rise and take his place. His words and work are still needed.
Father Andrew is one of the most courageous people I have ever met.He never avoided saying what he felt needed to be said, even when he knew the consequences were going to be devastating. He and my uncle Alphonse Gerwing were cut from the same cloth and I admired them both tremendously. May you both rest in peace.