The Failure of Catholic Social Thought in Alberta

By Brett Graham Fawcett
March 12, 2015

It isn’t any secret that much of the “conservative” movement in America is really just libertarianism—in some ways, the quintessential liberalism—behind a flimsy traditionalist fig leaf. But America isn’t alone in this. In recent months, the political events of the Canadian province of Alberta have provided not only a concrete example of that “conservative”-to-libertarian transition occurring, but also a portentous example of where it can lead, one which all conservative voters in America ought to keep in mind as their federal election slowly ascends the horizon.

Alberta has something of a reputation for being a socially conservative holdout within an increasingly liberalized Canada. After all, our first great premier, William “Bible Bill” Aberhart, was also the host of the long-running Gospel radio series, “Back to the Bible”; his co-host on that program, Ernest Manning, was also his successor as premier. Manning’s son, Preston, later founded the Reform Party as a populist alternative to the federal Conservative Party, with which it later merged.

A localized analogue to the Reform Party emerged in our province in 2007-8, when the Wildrose Alliance Party (WRA) came into existence to challenge the reigning Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta (PCPA). The PCPA has been in power since 1971, and unsurprisingly was perceived as having sunk into complacency and cronyism. The WRA consisted largely of former Conservatives seeking to restore honor and accountability to government, and it was widely perceived as being more socially conservative than the reigning party, an impression aided by the number of pastors-turned-Wildrose candidates (including Allan Hunsperger, whose private comment that practicing homosexuals are destined for the “lake of fire” may have been a factor in the WRA’s election failure that year).

Yet, after a meteoric rise in the public opinion followed by a meteoric plummet in its election performance, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith abruptly announced, along with nine of her cabinet members, that she was crossing the floor to join the PCPA, having determined that since the election of its new leader, Premier Jim Prentice, she had nothing left to protest.

This, after building a career on criticizing the endemic corruption and lack of openness from the governing party; this, after repeatedly insisting that the problems with the PCs ran too deep for any new leader to solve them; this, coming mere weeks after denouncing another Wildrose MLA for defecting to the PCs as a species of treachery; this, without any consultation of Wildrose members or any public discussion before the fact whatsoever.

Recently, Smith offered something resembling an apology for her actions, one which expressed no personal responsibility. She's sorry if we were offended, of course, but it was really the party’s fault; it was too socially conservative for her, and she couldn't stand to keep company with such a homophobic crowd any longer (though she had no problem riding this homophobic crowd’s votes into the position of the Official Opposition).

Of course, those of us who are actual social conservatives have long known that the WRA was anything but socially conservative so long as Smith was at its helm. Not only is she an avowed atheist (a steely unbeliever, not merely an uncertain agnostic), but her entire philosophy, if we may dignify her worldview with that word, was that of libertarianism, the philosophy of growth and gain at all costs. Her vision for the province was libertarian and, it would seem, her philosophy of personal advancement was equally libertarian, concerned with naked ambition and power-grabbing rather than principles (like loyalty). Many people were stunned and surprised at the announcement that she was crossing the floor, but when we look at her stated philosophy, then, really, nothing should be less surprising.

Social conservatism is truly an inconvenient program, a rival to the merciless efficiency of libertarianism. It means cultivating a holistic culture for a society, which necessarily means resisting the natural trajectory of demographics and technology; in William F. Buckley, Jr.’s inimitable phrase, it means standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!” But it also means identifying oneself with transcendent concepts that stand above and even apart from history. This is why it involves defending apparent abstractions like “marriage” and “dignity” over against the expediency and logic of an ever-fleeting moment. These are the kind of universals that determine the shape of the particulars. In his Choruses from the Rock, T.S. Eliot asks:

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?

Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”

What will you answer? “We dwell together

To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

A community, in contrast to a crowd, is formed by shared values, a collective commitment to work toward the common good, that is, the full moral flourishing of the persons in that community. St. Thomas Aquinas explains in Summa Theologica I.II q. 92 that, while human law cannot make any of its citizens virtuous and should not endeavor to try, it does advance the common good by mandating the virtue necessary for peaceful social behavior: Justice, giving and doing unto others what is due to them. And, as he explains in his treatise on kings, De Regno, civic governors promote virtue and justice, not only by mandating it, but also by exhibiting it in their personal lives.

Danielle Smith failed at this, not only in her recent betrayal but in her entire political career, which consisted simply of attacking the party to which she now belongs without offering a rival vision for our province. All she fought for was our economic strength, the “Alberta Advantage.”

The Maritimes furnish us with examples of what happens to once-wealthy provinces that lose their economic power. May God grant that this won't happen to Alberta any time soon, but the recent drop in oil prices should startle us into seriously confronting the question: Without our oil and our economy, what are we? Are we a community, or just huddling money-grubbers? The recent dispute over whether school boards should be obliged to support Gay-Straight Alliances, which Smith cited as the “final straw” in her decision to turn her coat, should prove to us that we really need to decide now who we are as a province and what we consider the common good to be, and whether we really are in continuity with the Alberta of “Bible Bill,” or whether our project is to build a new society from the ground up.

The WRA was once a party of social conservatism, and thus it is once offered an answer to these questions. There was something grimly appropriate in the fact that Smith offered her pseudo-apology within a few hours of the death of columnist and one-time Senate candidate Link Byfield, one of the original co-founders of the WRA. Byfield was not only a devout Catholic who converted after a wayward youth of weed-scented prodigality, but a political philosopher formed by principles.

An anecdote from Link’s father, renowned local journalist Ted Byfield, demonstrates this point ably:

Some guy asked his wife Joanne: “Mrs. Byfield, would it not be true that your husband is living in the 19th century?”  And she said: “That’s absurd. He’s living in the 16th century.” That was true. In his thinking, he went back to the origins of western culture, the western system, which has given us everything we’ve got.

I love this story, for it exemplifies how Link Byfield styled his ideals after the heritage of the ages, not of the hour; that he reached into the deep foundations of civilization to draw out his prescriptions for his little community. Further evidence of this can be seen in the comment of MacLean’s columnist Colby Cash that, for every one time Link Byfield (a noted pro-lifer) condemned abortion, he condemned the death penalty five times; and, of course, it is shown in his last public statement before his death, a criticism of Smith’s shameful defection. This was the man who helped found the Wildrose Alliance and who once sought, unsuccessfully, to run as an MLA candidate for it.  What might have happened if he had won that nomination? What if he had become the party’s leader and governed its policies in accordance with his “16th century” outlook?

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.”

And—who knows?—maybe, someday, something like that could be.