A note posted on the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada website says that Father Raymond De Souza will be the featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa on May 1. Hundreds of MPs, Senators, judges of the Supreme Court, Parliament Hill staff and invited members of the public attend the annual event. The EFC blurb describes Fr. De Souza as being “of the National Post.” I would have thought it more appropriate to describe him as a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston, which he is, but it is easy to understand the confusion.
De Souza’s persona
Fr. De Souza’s main public persona owes to his regular column in the National Post newspaper. He is also in Ottawa frequently where he rubs shoulders and shares events with prominent Conservative politicians such as John Baird, Jason Kenney and Jim Flaherty. In his column, Fr. De Souza is fulsome in his praise for those ministers — although not so much for Stephen Harper. Fr. De Souza also uses his column to write – with much less fondness and respect — about a long list of others, including the late Jack Layton, Paul Martin, Joe Clark, Alison Redford, Barack Obama, and even Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
With Fr. De Souza as their featured speaker, organizers of the Prayer Breakfast have once again chosen a demonstrably conservative Christian to headline their event. Parliamentarians of a more liberal or progressive religious persuasion may well feel some scepticism about the breakfast, not to mention some of the other speeches and events that accompany it. The choice of resource people there generally bears the same religiously conservative mark.
De Souza’s preferences
Fr. De Souza’s preferences are clear, in philosophical, personal and partisan terms. You don’t have to do deep research to learn about all of this. You merely have to read his columns, in which he describes his many contacts and engagements with those in the current political establishment. He attended the swearing in of the newly minted Conservative cabinet in May 2011 – and writes glowingly about it. He is an advisor to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in his fledgling Office of Religious Freedom, and was a keynote presenter to a closed-door session of that group in October 2011. When in March 2012, Father De Souza hosted a dinner in Mississauga in honour of a visiting Catholic cardinal from India, he tells us that Jason Kenney, his friend of 20 years, was on hand to welcome the prelate.
Kenney and Baird are De Souza favourites. In a May 18, 2011 column following the cabinet swearing in, Fr. De Souza writes: “Jason Kenney and John Baird personify the hard work that got the [Conservative] party its majority.” He adds, “I have known both of them since the early 1990s, so my presence at Rideau Hall on Wednesday had a rather personal dimension to it.”
In a column on September 17, 2011 Fr. De Souza writes, “When Stephen Harper won his majority government (with Jason Kenney as architect), an extraordinarily bold political project was brought to a successful conclusion . . . . The festivities in Edmonton today are focused on a remarkable achievement for those involved, but it ought to be an occasion for national gratitude, too.”
“Hapless” Joe Clark?
The “festivities” that Fr. De Souza mentions were the 25th anniversary celebrations for the (now defunct) Alberta Report magazine founded by neo-conservative icon Ted Byfield. “The principals of what is being celebrated tonight – Preston Manning, Byfield, Harper, Kenney – have made a signal contribution to Canadian unity,” writes Fr. De Souza. The rise of this conservative movement, he continues, led to the “terminal decline” of the Progressive Conservative Party “led latterly by the hapless Joe Clark, the perfect symbol of all that Byfield and his friends entered politics to change.” Now there’s a pastoral touch.
Who else does Fr. De Souza like in his columns? In addition to Kenney, Baird, Flaherty, Manning and Ted Byfield, there is Ezra Levant: “a one-man media phenomenon”; Barbara Amiel: “a formidable lady”; and Conrad Black: “They [American courts] seized his assets, confiscated his money, maligned his character, disparaged his wife and took away his liberty.”
With whom and what is Fr. De Souza not impressed? Try Alberta Conservative leader Alison Redford. In an April 18 column about the Alberta election Fr. De Souza writes: “The thought occurs that Redford is not running as [Joe] Clark, or Lougheed, or [Kim] Campbell, but rather as Paul Martin, who inherited a dynasty and led it to defeat . . . Redford is copying that strategy, painting social conservatives as bogeymen that she alone can keep at bay. (I wish [Danielle] Smith really were a social conservative, but she simply is not).”
Fr. De Souza describes Redford as “a protégé of Joe Clark”, them makes this observation. “By 2011, the Clark wing of Canadian conservatism, marked as it was by political blundering and intellectual vacuity, was down to Lowell Murray, wrapping up 30-plus years in the Senate, and Scott Brison, sitting as a third-party backbencher in the House of Commons.”
What and who else fails to impress Fr. De Souza? Try multiculturalism, the culture in Quebec, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (which has just seen its CIDA funding slashed by 67%), and anyone who practices birth control. He is pleased about the back to the future debate now raging in U.S. about contraception. “Many Americans,” he writes, “have been astonished that anyone thinks contraception worth discussing at all. But perhaps the unambiguous good is not so unambiguous after all. The culture is broken, and therefore the reigning cultural orthodoxy needs a little dissent.”
Jack Layton: “narrow horizon”?
Fr. De Souza was no fan of Jack Layton, in life or in death. He wrote not one, but two National Post columns about Layton’s death and his funeral. “Layton’s legacy is not love and hope properly understood,” Fr. De Souza writes on August 31, 2011, “but rather an ideology so secular that love and hope are understood primarily in political terms . . . He lived a grand life on a public stage, but with a narrow horizon. The horizon of the stage is only as broad as its curtain, and when the curtain comes down, there is only the dark. Turn off the lights, indeed.”
This column prompted the following response from former MP and Deputy Speaker Bill Blaikie. It was carried in the publication Convivium (which is edited by Fr. De Souza): “From [De Souza’s] remarkably harsh column in the National Post on Layton’s funeral to his comments on Layton in the first issue of Convivium (October 2011), there is a definite lack of ambiguity in the arguably hostile caricaturing of Layton’s life and death.”
Desmond Tutu: “tiny taunts”
Fr. De Souza is similarly unimpressed with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In an October 2006 column, following Tutu’s 75th birthday, De Souza allows that Tutu “had the benefit of suffering in his early life.” Having provided this faint praise, he continues by saying that in the past several decades “it has been hard to think of any position [Tutu] has taken that would upset the Hollywood glitterati who so lavishly feted his birthday last month.”
De Souza describes the archbishop, along with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, in this way: “The upshot of trading the Gospel for the fads of politics is that neither Tutu nor Jackson seems to function as a clergyman so much as a traveling celebrity for fashionable causes, like the innocuous grace before meals that lends a spiritual gloss to a gala dinner.”
It is unlikely that tiny taunts from this side of the Atlantic will put any dent into the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who helped to dismantle apartheid. But Fr. De Souza might want to look into the mirror before he accuses anyone else of providing innocuous grace before meals and lending spiritual gloss to gala dinners — or breakfasts.