Jack Layton and the dark cloud of unknowing


As the tributes to NDP leader Jack Layton roll in across the country, one is struck by the inchoate outpouring of grief. The secular liturgies of placing flowers and cards outside of the deceased’s place of work are unique for a politician. Can anybody point to any other politician for whom this tribute would eventuate?
Layton somehow touched a cord inside people.Intuitively they understood that this was a politician with a difference, a man who genuinely cared. “A tribune of the people” as Rick Salutin called him.

Layton’s last campaign,full of ebullience, hope and energy spoke directly to a jaded electorate.Waving his cane and fighting cancer Jack kept on keeping on. In a time of disillusionment, of market meltdowns, global warming alerts, mean spirited  politicians, Jack Layton never lost hope in the human project the potential of public service to make life better for ordinary people.

In his final letter, he stated a truism:”All my life I have worked to make life better.”

Torontonians knew this better than anybody.Here was a “blue blood”, his father a cabinet minister in the Mulroney government who took the next step away from the noblesse oblige attitude of Red Toryism to the social justice thrust of the NDP.

Jack Layton was “whip smart”, a PHd prof with an extraordinary feel for the street, the average worker. He was on the right side of almost every issue. You name the issue Jack was there—from pioneering bike lanes, fighting for the homeless, welcoming boat people, championing  the environment, helping AIDS victims.This was no show, He backed up what he spoke about. He wore out shoe letter listening to the homeless and the immigrant. We saw it first hand.

Layton grew up in a progressive United Church home in Montreal.He understood the desires of Francophones. He also loved the progressive Catholic social justice tradition recruiting Chuck Angus and Andy Cash onto his team.In his fourth election he made a historic breakthrough and had he lived he would have overtaken Harper and become PM.

Jack Layton’s unflagging energy, his fidelity to core principles of justice and equity, his inherent decency and civility—people are now realizing were rare qualities in a politician. They now sense that here was a public figure who actually cared deeply about the common good.

Catholics have been late to understand  Layton’s  gospel orientation. It has taken a long time to crack the Liberal hegemony among Catholics but the last election saw breakthroughs in this regard.Vatican ll, Catholics who had internalized the gospel imperative of justice finally began to break ranks with the Liberal Party which in their addiction to power had forgotten their former social justice vision. Many abandoned Tories who had long ceased to be Red and had become rabid free marketers and insensitive to the plight of the disadvantaged. 

Still there are Catholics who live under the cloud of unknowing, so blinded by ideology divorced from values that they can not break from the script handed down to them by their parents and grandparents. They simply have not grown into a deeper analysis. None are so blind than those who will not see.


Eastern Ontario would be a good place to start to understand the hermetically sealed cloud that envelopes good people.Jesus understood this when he warned people of his time that “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household”(Matt.10:36). In his time it was the overwhelming and distorted power of the clan, the family and the tribe. In traditional societies this prevented people from thinking critically.

Traditional Tories, these eastern Ontario Catholics grew up among United Empire Loyalists and the ghost of Kingston lawyer John A Macdonald. Many have also voted Liberal but very few have countenanced the vision of the New Democratic Party and its gospel orientation of social justice. Even though the Party is now 50 years old,few Catholics in eastern Ontario can bring themselves to vote for the NDP.Jack Layton’s extraordinary political life may force the next generation to rethink.

The present generation have not understood two salient facts.The Conservative Party is not the Conservative Party of their parents. It is a party of narrow vision whose policies have little time for working families, justice seekers or lovers of the environment.It is a party which will do nothing about abortion because it can’t. Yet many Catholics in rural areas are fooled into voting for a party which in many ways is the antithesis of gospel values.

While it is true that no one political party can encapsulate the gospel, today’s Tories are the farthest from this incarnation.

Jack Layton’s stellar life, dedicated to the common good may now wake these people living under the dark cloud of mindless traditionalism and unreality, A sacrament is only efficacious if it points to something deeper. Layton’s values were lived out.People iunderstood this.They were not mere words.He consistently honoured the Common Good, the central piece of Catholic Social Teaching

Jack Layton stood as a justice beacon for many Catholics. When so many bishops had forgotten that the cry of the victim was the cry of God, the leader of the NDP mercifully was present to keep the vision of the Galilean alive in the public realm. In this regard believers owe him a great debt.

1 Comment »

  1. 1
    mcluhansghost Says:

    Ironic isn’t it? Sometimes the most ‘Catholic’ leaders are not, by definition, ‘Catholic’ at all.


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