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

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Bishop Fred Henry

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.

News 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.

Bishop 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, 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.

And 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.

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 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 David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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