In celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) on November 19, prominent Catholic scholar and activist Mary Jo Leddy spoke about the challenges the 21st century church faces in a world where the importance of common space and the public good has diminished.
The event, “Faith in the Public Square,” was, quite appropriately, held at the Anglican Church of the Redeemer in downtown Toronto, a building which literally stands within a city block of the University of Toronto, Queen’s Park, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the upscale neighbourhood of Yorkville, one of Canada’s wealthiest stretches of street.
While bad weather kept away many members of the CCC, which was meeting in Mississauga, Ont., many clergy, laypeople, and citizens from a variety of backgrounds came out to hear Leddy speak.
Leddy, who founded and wrote for the Catholic New Times in the 1970s and went on to found the Toronto-based refugee aid organization Romero House in 1992, began the lecture with an anecdote from her childhood in Saskatoon, where Protestants and Catholics lived together in a kind of vaguely hostile mutual ignorance. She praised the ways in which the ecumenical movement and the CCC have worked hard to overcome these barriers of ignorance and distrust in order to work for justice and peace.
She went on to add, however, that the CCC “is taken for granted by the vast majority of people in our country.” While the churches may speak in the public square, “the question now is who is listening.”
This is the problem to which Leddy returned throughout her lecture; while the CCC is a witness of Christian unity, and speaks on behalf of its members on many social issues, that doesn’t necessarily matter in a post-modern world where, as she put it, “you can say ‘this is what I believe’ and the answer can be ‘yeah, whatever.'”
Leddy argued that while it would be “all too easy to go on at some length about how the church itself is responsible for some of its loss of voice in the public square,” the church’s struggle for relevancy is tied to a decrease in public engagement in a country where “the public square has been emptied out.”
Speaking of political changes that have taken place over the past decades under the aegis of various political parties, Leddy argued that the public square is increasingly controlled and manipulated to serve the interests of those in power, which in turn has led to a growing cynicism about politics on the part of the general population. “The heart of the matter is that the churches, like many other people in this country, have actually lost faith in the public square itself.”
In this kind of a political climate, all voices of authority are viewed with suspicion, and so, Leddy noted, “the churches may be speaking, but the effect in the public square is not obvious.”
But Leddy also saw hope, particularly in her interactions with the volunteers and interns working at Romero House. Leddy suggested that there is still a hunger to make the world better, but that for the younger generations words alone are viewed with suspicion. The questions they are asking, she said, are about action. She said that she frequently hears “we know what the churches say, but we don’t take it seriously; because we look at how the people live, and when we say how they live we know they don’t mean what they say.”
For Leddy, the conclusion was quite clear: it is not enough for the CCC to simply deliver statements in support or condemnation of things. “I think in this post-modern culture, only our lives give weight to our words.”