Now we have Wafergate

Did the Canadian PM eat the communion wafer, or pocket it? Days before his audience with the Pope, why did Stephen Harper—a Protestant—take communion at a Catholic funeral?

Politics and religion rarely make peaceful bedfellows and are shied away from if a polite dinner party is the aim of any cautious host…but as Canada’s Prime Minister has found, it is also mighty uncomfortable when the host—of the Catholic communion variety—itself becomes the controversy and he’s smack bang in the middle.

Now, somewhat predictably, a controversy over whether Stephen Harper swallowed or pocketed a consecrated communion host during a Catholic funeral mass has become known as ‘Wafergate’. It has, like all other political ‘gates’ been cruel in its exposure, this time of either egregious ignorance on the part of the PM and his office, or dishonesty about what the PM did with said host. Did he consume it or pocket it?

There was video floating around in cyberspace but it now seems to have been taken out of circulation due to copyright issues. Some believe the video showed Harper, an evangelical Protestant, pocketing the host which Catholics, as transubstantiationists, believe once consecrated is actually the body of Christ. It is not to be stuffed in any pocket, let alone a non-Catholic’s such as Harper’s.


Actually the consecrated host is only supposed to be swallowed by Catholics, and not just ordinary ones at that, but those who have confessed and been forgiven any serious (called mortal) sins. But that’s not the point where Canada’s No. 1 politician is concerned.

The point is surely he should have known not to line up for communion, or he could have indicated in some way that he would not partake in the communion ritual. Equally, I suppose, the Catholic priest should have made it clear that only baptized Catholics are eligible. But if Harper was visiting a mosque or a temple it is a safe bet he’d have been well schooled in the required rituals and protocols, either through his own knowledge or by the protocol people he employs for just such purposes.

But Wafergate is not really concerned with that either. Like all ‘gates’ it is about the aftermath—the explanation or the cover-up. Some at the funeral swear he popped the host in his funeral programme or in his pocket, and despite the verbal skills of many senior politicians Harper’s mouth, to the best of my knowledge, is not in his suit pocket.

His staff has quickly risen to his defense, saying he swallowed the host and the video footage didn’t stay on Harper long enough to show the whole—or in this case unholy—story. The Speaker of Canada’s Senate was sitting a few pews behind Harper and has gone public saying he saw Harper put the host in his mouth.

Whatever he did, Harper must be aware of the impact of his actions, as Canada is a heavily Catholic country with about 43 percent identifying as Roman Catholic. That’s a swag of voters, and a serious number of people who will be aware of the protocol, if not the actual practice, of what’s involved in communion.

He also knows how these little unusual incidents remain lodged in the collective voter mind, not unlike Helen Clark and ‘Paintergate’.

But politics is so often about timing, and while Harper can possibly be forgiven for being caught off-guard when presented with a consecrated host in a church, he was also very mindful of a certain audience he was to have with the Pope just days after the wafer business.

After his stint at the G8 in L’Aquila, Italy, he went to Rome and paid a visit to the Pope, as you do. Footage of that Catholic experience was extensive, and did not indicate any coolness—other than his usually aloof manner—on the part of Benedict XVI. It is fair to assume the Pope would have been briefed on Wafergate given it was an issue involving the Catholic Church and a Head of State. If anything, the Pope seemed preoccupied with showing off some of the Church’s prized possessions in the reception room, and then posing with the evangelical Protestant Harper clan.

The Harper thought bubble would have been along the lines of, ‘Look, Canadian Catholics, I’m okay with the Big Guy so no worries about that pesky host business.’

But just to complete the religion/politics mix, Harper’s host—this time the Pope—was himself fresh from meddling in politics and leaving open just as many questions as Wafergate.

Timed for maximum impact, the pontiff’s encyclical called Charity in Truth coincided with the G8 Summit and rode right on in to the morality of global economic practices, and therefore the immorality that led to the current economic meltdown.

It has left analysts playing a game of matching the economic, social, political and moral dots, and as is so often the case with missives from on so high, is great in humanitarian theory but doomed to the role of doorstop in actuality.

The Pope knows, as we all do, that profit and ethics are not supposed to be mutually exclusive. While chastened by the economic doldrums, penitent market players promise to be more ethical in their business just pleeeease let the recovery begin. And just as inevitably as politicians get caught in ‘gates’, the almighty ‘profit’ will once again rise from the ashes of Wall St when the global economy picks up.

Perhaps, however, the encyclical could have had a more lasting and practical effect had it acknowledged that somewhere in the tragedy of poverty birth control is a real issue. Of popes and prophylactics we can only but hope…would sure have pushed Harper and questions of unsafe practices with hosts off any front page.