Profile

The fighting bishop

BRIAN BERGMAN March 15 1999
Profile

The fighting bishop

BRIAN BERGMAN March 15 1999

The fighting bishop

Profile

BRIAN BERGMAN

Roman Catholic Bishop Frederick Henry heard the call of God from a very early age. His mother, Noreen, can recall a three-year-old Frederick sitting near the front of the church in London, Ont., and pointing to the priest. “When I grow up,” he told his parents, “I’m going to be one of those guys.” Later, as a 10-year-old, Henry could be found in his bedroom, pretending to administer the eucharist to his four younger siblings. That sense of mission has never left the now 55-year-old Henry, who, on March 19, will mark his first anniversary as bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Calgary. In a controversial—and sometimes confrontational—inaugural year, Henry has tangled repeatedly with Alberta Premier Ralph Klein over the morality of government-sanctioned gambling, waded publicly into the thorny debate over homosexual rights and spoken out eloquently on behalf of the downtrodden. “As a bishop,” he says, “I’ve often thought my voice is to be used for the marginalized, the voiceless, those who have no political muscle in this society.”

Henry’s candid ways have been applauded by many members of the Catholic laity for faithfully applying the gospel message to contemporary social issues—and condemned by his critics for recklessly mixing politics with religion. ‘We’re very pleased with the positions he’s taken,” says Dennis Castellino, a retired Calgary petroleum engineer and state deputy of the Catholic

men’s service club Knights of Columbus. “He speaks straight from his convictions, which are based on the values Christianity espouses.” A much less laudatory view comes from Frank Sisson, owner of Calgary’s Silver Dollar Casino, who squared off against the bishop during last fall’s plebiscite on whether or not to rid the city of video-lottery terminals. Among other things, Sisson is upset that the Ontario born-and-raised Henry

Calgary’s Henry mixes local politics with religion

wasted no time in lecturing Albertans on how to behave. “As soon as he got off the plane, he started nattering and denouncing VLTs,” says Sisson. “He didn’t even have his feet wet in town and already he was trying to set the rules.”

It’s true that Henry’s baptism by fire on the gambling issue literally began as he landed at the Calgary International Airport last March and was confronted by curious reporters. Church and community leaders had been pressing the Alberta government to outlaw VLTs, arguing that the machines fed gambling addictions and wreaked havoc on family life. As Henry was the new leader of the 310,000-member Calgary diocese, which encompasses most of southern Alberta, the media wanted to know where he stood on the matter. Typically, he didn’t mince words. “The sooner we can banish them and trash them,” he said, “the better

off society is going to be.” Henry soon became swept up in the anti-VLT crusade, which culminated last Oct. 19 in municipal plebiscites in 38 Alberta communities. The campaign became quite heated, with much of the anger focused on the Klein government, which gambling opponents claim has become addicted to the more than $500 million that VLTs pour into provincial coffers each year. When, just three weeks before the plebiscite date, Calgary’s municipally appointed lottery board announced that it was setting aside $6 million in provincial VLT revenues for community projects—including $2 million for the homeless—Henry cried foul. He accused Klein of waging “a very blatant attempt to buy votes.” Klein rejected the charge, stating that the lottery boards were composed of “ordinary citizens” who made their decisions entirely at the local level. In the end, all but eight small municipalities voted to retain the VLTs. But in almost all cases, the margin of victory was slim; in Calgary, for example, 55 per cent voted to keep the gambling machines while 45 per cent favoured scrapping them. In January, Henry and other church leaders urged Klein to unilaterally ban VLTs from Alberta. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, the premier said that to do so would mean ignoring the democratic will of the people. Klein added that, in government polling, gambling lags far behind issues such as education, health care and the economy as a priority for voters. “Bishop Henry happens to see this as one of the great sins of society and that’s his prerogative,” says Klein. “I commend him for his tenacity, but I don’t agree with him.”

Told of Klein’s remarks, Henry leans back in his office chair and places his hands behind his head. “I think the premier knows he has a problem,” he says with a smile. “A solid 45-per-cent negative vote—when has Ralph Klein ever had that on any issue?” Warming to his subject, Henry adds: “I would hope eventually we’re going to find a few more statesmen, rather than politicians who always run government by polls and testing the waters.”

While the anti-VLT campaign consumed much of the bishop’s time and energies, Henry has managed to become embroiled in several other contentious matters. Last April, when the Supreme Court of Canada directed the Alberta government to include protection for gays and lesbians in the Alberta Individual’s Rights Protection Act, Klein faced strong pressure from within his

caucus to invoke the federal Charter of Rights notwithstanding clause to nullify the court ruling. In an open letter published in the Calgary Herald, Henry argued for a more nuanced response.

Henry wrote that there has been far too much discrimination against gays and lesbians. At the same time, he reiterated traditional Catholic dogma, stating that sexual relations must occur within a marriage between a man and a woman who are open to procreation—and that homosexual behaviour is therefore “morally unacceptable.” Henry said the province should agree to protect homosexuals in areas such as employment and housing, but legislatively guard against further legitimizing their lifestyle through measures such as spousal or adoption benefits for same-sex couples. That is precisely the approach adopted by the Klein government, which is currently looking at ways it can adhere to the Supreme Court ruling without extending full equality rights to gays and lesbians.

Even before he arrived in Alberta, Henry was no stranger to controversy. During stints as a bishop in Windsor and later in Thunder Bay, he crossed swords with Ontario Premier Mike Harris over cuts to social services. In one private meeting, Henry told the premier his policies were “heartless.” In fact, the bishop credits Harris with politicizing him. “The tax cuts he promised were being done on the backs of the poor,” he says. “It made me angry and radicalized me.”

In addition to his strong convictions, Henry is known among friends and colleagues for his sense of humour, his love of sports—and, above all, his human touch. While still a seminary student, Henry worked at a number of summer jobs, including at a brewery, a barrel manufacturer and a textile mill. As a result, he says, “I’ve always had a great respect for work and the worker.” After two years in parish work, he embarked on a 12-year teaching career at St. Peter’s Seminary in London. If he has one regret since first being ordained a bishop in 1986, it is losing the immediacy of the classroom. ‘You know where students were at when they came in and you know where they are at in the end,” he says. “There are few things that give you a high like that.”

Well, in Henry’s case, there is at least one secular activity that provides a similar rush. “I love to golf,” he says. Henry, who first learned to play at age 12 while working as a caddy, speaks of the sport with the fervour of a true adherent. “It’s like a moment of sanity in a crazy world,” he enthuses. “And when you hit a shot the way it should be hit—it’s an incredible feeling.” Then comes a confession: “I will admit that, on occasion, I’ll put that ball down on the tee, and look at it and think of a person who may be giving me a hard time. When I whack the hell out of it, it doesn’t cost me anything and I feel so much better getting all my aggression out.” On the links or off, Calgary’s fighting bishop is nobody’s patsy. □