So someone has finally set out to solve the mystery of Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s Catholicism. It was a mystery because nothing in the public life of Canada’s late great prime minister, and little in his private life, ever showed any evidence of it. So where and what was it, exactly?
In a current book – “The Hidden Pierre Elliot Trudeau — The Faith Behind the Politics” – three Trudeau aficionados perhaps unwittingly provide the answer. We couldn’t see his Catholicism because, except in the most nominal sense, it didn’t exist. I haven’t read the book, but every review of it points to the same conclusion.
Trudeau may be said to fulfill the same role in 20th century Canadian politics that John F. Kennedy fills in 20th century American politics. He became the idol of the new postwar generation, the “Sixties People.”
Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, came ahead of that generation and was revered by it mostly in retrospect. Trudeau, who took office in 1968, came with it and was cherished and recurrently elected by it. Both were Catholics, both were womanizers, and both steadfastly refused to allow their professed religion to influence their professed politics.
There were differences, however. Both were of an age to serve in World War II. Kennedy served in the thick of the Pacific battle; Trudeau spent the war as a Montreal playboy, motorcycling about town in a German helmet, spoofing the whole war effort. Then after the war, Kennedy militantly defied the Soviet slave state. Trudeau courted it, praised it, flirted with Cuba’s Castro and consistently twitted the Americans who were protecting his country from it.
But what of his Catholicism? He was educated in Catholic schools, was married to a Protestant in a Catholic church, and his three sons were raised as Catholics.
Yet it was he as justice minister who introduced the bill legalizing abortion in Canada. He favored no-fault divorce and in retirement raised no voice against the burgeoning movement for gay rights. In the teaching of the church, anyone who even assists in or enables an abortion is considered excommunicated, unless and until they repent of the deed. For Trudeau, such a repentance would obviously require a public statement, repudiating what he had publicly done. Until the day of his death, he declared himself proud of the legislation – a law which, when the courts were finished with it, made Canada virtually the only country with no legal restriction on abortion whatever.
So, how did his Catholicism influence his conduct? This is the question Trudeau biographer John English, journalist Richard Gwynn and the historian P. Whitney Lackenhauer promise to answer. Their book consists entirely of the memories and observations of some 20 of Trudeau’s friends, colleagues and journalists, a list distinguished by the virtual absence of any avowed Christian believers, probably because Trudeau had no friends with such an unfashionable inclination. (One possible exception is Gwynn himself, who is said to have returned of late to the faith.)
From their comments, as they appear in the reviews, we find a man whose faith diminished over his lifetime down to some form of occasional meditation or contemplation. He went to church to meditate, he at one point allows, though he did not need the church to “talk to God.” Finally, after the tragic death of a son two years before his own, even prayer became impossible for him.
If this faith imposed any restraints upon his private conduct, they must have been broad ones. The book, writes Father Alphonse de Valk, editor of Catholic Insight magazine, reveals Trudeau as “a full-status Catholic bimbo.” Before, during and after his marriage in 1971 to the socialite Margaret Sinclair, 29 years his junior, he enjoyed a robust chain of love affairs. They numbered, in the estimation of Hollywood actress Margot Kidder, about 40, she herself being one of them. Another was with Kim Cattrall of “Sex in the City” fame, he 59 and she 22 at the time, and another with Newfoundland lawyer Deborah Coyne, mother of his 15-year-old illegitimate daughter.
Beyond the Trudeau mystery, however, lies another one. He was buried in Montreal with the full pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Church. Yet his abortion legislation alone made him an excommunicated apostate. Ordinary Catholic Christians well may have wondered: If the church believes what it says it believes, how could it allow this? Now, if someone wrote a book tackling that mystery, even I might buy and read it.