In an age of ecclesial laryngitis, Bishop Fred Henry was a strong voice
By Glen Argan
No one could remain neutral towards Calgary Bishop Fred Henry whose resignation for health reasons was announced Jan. 4. The moment he stepped off the airplane in Calgary 19 years ago, he caused controversy by criticizing then-Premier Ralph Klein’s reliance on casino revenues to fund government programs.
Since then, he has taken on a dizzying array of issues and has been lambasted by both left and right-wing critics for his take on the controversies of the day. He was once even hauled before the Alberta Human Rights Commission for an article condemning the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Even though he was found innocent of the cooked-up charge against him, his accusers had their legal bills paid by the human rights commission while Henry was stuck paying for his own lawyer. In the eyes of many, including myself, the commission’s gross injustice to the bishop mars its credibility to this day.
As editor of the Western Catholic Reporter for all of Henry’s term in Calgary until the last three months, I was responsible for publishing dozens of his articles. Almost every article he submitted I published, making only the usual editing changes to accord with our newspaper’s style.
Despite publishing all those articles, I hardly ever had reason to speak to him. I interviewed him when he came to Calgary, spoke to him a couple times on the phone, exchanged a few emails with him and spoke to him briefly when our paths crossed in public.
However, I don’t think his lengthy, sometimes in-your-face, articles convinced many people to change their minds on issues. Probably the same could be said for my own editorials which greatly outnumber Henry’s opinion pieces.
Still, I have not been a fan of the style of rhetoric Henry favoured – repeatedly calling the Alberta government “totalitarian,” for instance – myself holding mostly to the belief that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Vinegar polarizes; honey leaves room for dialogue.
What I observed was that Bishop Henry’s early articles drew an enthusiastic response from readers, but over the years the seemingly unrelenting harsh tone led some to turn the page without delving into the article.
Bishop Henry would no doubt have a different opinion on what I have just written. I know he would. He has strong opinions on any topic you could name.
One thing you could say about Bishop Henry was that he made himself heard. His ability to write and speak with an edge let the public know what the Catholic teaching was on the issue in question.
In an age when some bishops have had laryngitis on every issue except those involving sex, life and family, Henry stuck to the tradition of speaking out on behalf of the common person. He raised his voice on behalf of striking workers at the daily Calgary Herald newspaper when most prelates would have remained silent.
For that, he got more brickbats from the wealthy and powerful.
You have to admire him for that. The interventions of too many Catholic prelates today appear ideologically driven. The U.S. bishops, for example, have a long road to travel before they are no longer seen as a religious arm of the Republican Party.
Henry certainly could not be accused of that. He took on the whole range of issues the Church addresses in its social teaching. If in his later years, he appeared to fall into the category of political conservative, perhaps that says more about the direction of society than it does about Bishop Henry. As the power of political correctness grew in society, he would have none of it. Good on him.
No matter how many or how few people he convinced with his outspokenness, he did leave a legacy. He created a space for Catholics in Alberta to be heard on every issue. Ooops! Addressing the spectrum of issues of the day was our job at the Western Catholic Reporter. That topic will have to wait for another day.