Fred Henry, departing Catholic bishop, held strong pro-labour stance in addition to controversial social conservative views

Posted on January 05, 2017, 12:39 am
6 mins

PHOTOS: Frederick Henry during his 19 years as Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Calgary. (Screen shot from a diocese video.) Below: Two scenes from the picket line at the Calgary Herald during the 1999-2000 strike. In the first, striker Murdoch Macleod and others bravely face down a truck trying to drive across the picket line. In the second, union local president Andy Marshall leads the first picket in what would be a long, bitter and ultimately unsuccessful dispute. Bottom: Ralph Klein, the premier of Alberta at the time.

It seems odd to refer to Frederick Bernard Henry as “retiring” – the outspoken Roman Catholic Bishop of Calgary was never very retiring, even though it was announced yesterday that he is.

Actually, Fred Henry, as I inevitably think of him, has already retired. According to news reports yesterday, the controversial churchman’s resignation for health reasons after 19 years as the top cleric in Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary has been accepted by Pope Francis and a successor has been named. At 73, the former bishop of London, Ont., and Thunder Bay, Ont., was two years younger than the required retirement age for Catholic bishops.

nustk1News reports focused on the outspoken cleric’s socially conservative views, including his opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion services, Alberta Education’s recent position on students’ gender expression and HPV vaccinations in schools.

I’m not here to defend Bishop Henry’s views on those issues, or those of the Catholic Church. But it’s important to remember that on other questions, the rights of working families and the need for public services in particular, Rev. Henry was an influential progressive voice in Alberta.

This was particularly true of his stalwart and courageous defence of the rights of working people to bargain collectively, and to be treated with dignity by our society.

Bishop Henry was certainly never afraid to speak up or act in support of what he believed, the consequences, well … be damned. Naturally, journalists loved him for this, because what he had to say usually made for an entertaining story.

nustk3Bishop Henry started lambasting premier Ralph Klein for his government’s anti-social social policies almost from the moment he walked off the plane in Calgary in March 1998. Leastways, Most Rev. Henry was still waiting for his suitcase to arrive at the luggage carousel in Calgary Airport with some reporters sent to greet him when he lit into Mr. Klein’s so-called Progressive Conservative government’s reliance on addictive video slot machines to raise revenue.

At various times, Bishop Henry assailed Mr. Klein for underfunding education and attacking public health care. He stood up for a group of striking school support workers in Calgary who were getting the full Alberta treatment from the local Catholic School District. When the Catholic bishop weighed in, as I recall, the strike was quickly settled. I doubt the conservative board members were very happy about it, but reminding them about Christian principles was the right thing to do in the circumstances.

He also helped both sides reach a deal when Catholic teachers were close to a strike in difficult negotiations with the same board.

kleinAnd when we journalists were on strike at the Calgary Herald for eight months in 1999 and 2000, Bishop Henry called a press conference to support our effort to fight for our legal collective bargaining rights and to protect quality journalism in the city. He condemned our employer’s iniquitous strikebreaking strategy, which had the full support of the Klein Government and which ultimately resulted in our union being smashed.

Most Rev. Henry refused to give interviews to Herald scabs for the duration of the strike, much to the vocal annoyance of a couple of more-Catholic-than-the-Pope strikebreakers. He would not be moved.

He said before the press conference that he viewed his refusal to give interviews to Herald strikebreakers during the labour dispute as part of his responsibility of proclaiming Christ’s Gospel, and suggested he might have to escalate his approach – which he then did by calling all the media together to urge the company to settle the strike.

At the newser he was delightfully blunt in his assessment of the journalism practiced by us union members (pretty good) and the strikebreakers who took our jobs (not very good at all). I will always be grateful to him for speaking that obvious truth.

If we examine the positions Most Rev. Henry took from the perspective of Catholic theology, it always seemed to me he was sincere, consistent and, when he was wrong, worthy of respectful disagreement. I’ll miss the guy.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said yesterday Bishop Henry’s replacement will be William Terrence McGrattan, bishop of the Diocese of Peterborough, Ont.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

8 Comments to: Fred Henry, departing Catholic bishop, held strong pro-labour stance in addition to controversial social conservative views

  1. Joan Millar

    January 5th, 2017

    A man who earned the ire of Conrad Black can’t be all bad.

    Reply
  2. Bob Raynard

    January 5th, 2017

    Interesting story, David, thanks for writing it. I guess it just goes to show that nobody’s hat is entirely white or entirely black.

    Reply
  3. Robert Wm Smith

    January 5th, 2017

    Respectfully David, I find it offensive that this priest gets lauds for not “crossing picket lines” when one takes into account his overt and intentional disregard for the rights of our most vulnerable kids, those who identify as LGBTQ2S. The “Most Reverend” is a hypocrit and bigot. Good riddance to him.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      January 5th, 2017

      A small point of clarification, Mr. Smith: “Most Rev.” is Canadian Press style for bishops of the Catholic church, not a comment on my part about Most Rev. Henry’s sanctity. I’m an old journo and I use CP Style. I’m not gonna stop. I didn’t use that honorific on Rabble, because Rabble’s style is not to use honorifics. As noted in the piece, I understand and sympathize with your point, and, not being Catholic, I don’t have mixed feelings about Catholic doctrine. However, as another commenter observed, “nobody’s hat is entirely white or entirely black.” I think that is worth acknowledging. Not crossing picket lines is no small thing. Where I come from, it’s a hell of an important principle. The power of unions has contributed mightily, and continues to contribute, to the rights of all working families, including LGBTQ people. I can tell you that the union I work for and the union I am a member of both take LGBTQ rights extremely seriously. The Catholic Church being what it is, don’t expect the next bishop to have a significantly different attitude from Bishop Henry. DJC

      Reply
  4. Andy M.

    January 5th, 2017

    David is nothing but loyal. As he and others have noted, though, Bishop Henry holds some pretty hateful positions. BUT . . . he did stand up for Herald strikers and other working people, earning the sobriquet “Twerp” from dear Conrad Black (and thus proving people often call others names that most apply to themselves). Bishop Henry is also proof of the principle that humans rarely warrant simplistic condemnations. (A few do, though!)

    Reply
  5. Robert

    January 5th, 2017

    To be clear, I do have respect for the labour movement and do fully understand the role of unions in the establishing of fair wages and fair treatment. I hold that your devotion to journalistic style does conflict with my opinion of this particular priest, and that is not a fault but my opinion. And believe me when I say that I do not question your integrity in any way. I was among the numbers of LGHTQ2S individuals who put themselves out there when Albertans was still nursing bigotry and spit hatred and vitriol at their own children. I fought the fight and endeavoured to educate. We made some progress, mostly through attrition. Henry signifies to me a very visible and sanctified reason to continue the hatred which has contributed to a renewal of the vitriol and even violence. My good friend Sherry McK. used to say that the pain inflicted on our community during the “hateful” times caused her, and others, to lock themselves away and become almost bed ridden. So, you’ll have to forgive me if I can’t separate Henry the union cheerleader from Henry the hate monger. My heart doesn’t work that way.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      January 5th, 2017

      Understood. DJC

      Reply
  6. brett

    January 9th, 2017

    I have never seen eye to eye with the good Bishop. Two things really turned me about him.

    The first was how he handled the issue of a convicted pedophile priest in his parish and more specifically how he blatantly ignored phone calls and letters from his flock about this. There was no action until the media got involved. This is the type old style Catholic leadership that has led to litigation and the insolvency of parishes in the US….not to mention harm to followers.

    The second was tendency to resort to personal judgement. I have no issue in his commenting on public issues but I did feel that it was highly inappropriate to call our elected representatives-Joe Clark, Paul Martin, and others ‘bad Catholics’ simply because he disagreed with them. It reminded me of my days in Quebec…and of the subsequent public backlash on the Church in that province. Who is he to judge?

    I have no doubt that he is sincere and of course I wish him improved health in his retirement. It was time for him to go…he was well past his best before date.

    Reply

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