Bishop's Blog

Of Faith and Politics

...a leader who introduces, promotes and ties the hand of his cabinet to support such legislation bears an even heavier moral burden and consequent judgment.

In reacting to my speaking out on the government's proposal to legalize same-sex "marriage," a spokes-person for the Prime Minister's Office said that Jean Chretien's primary responsibility is to serve the Canadian public, not his church. "There needs to be a separation between the church and state," she reportedly said.

So does this mean this issue is now closed; problem solved? Regrettably, it's not quite that simple.

It is disingenuous to ask religious believers not to base their contribution to society and political life-through the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy-on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good. The mantra of "separation of church and state" in our Canadian context is simply a crass secularist attempt to discount and marginalize persons with religious faith.

If we look to the Bible, we see that much of the Old Testament is filled with the writings of the prophets, almost all of whom spoke against the governments of their day. As a bishop, it is somewhat consoling to see that the prophets never preach a water-downed justice and only rarely a gentle justice. For them, justice is passionate, tempestuous, hotheaded, and most of all, immediately necessary.

The whole concept of separation of church and state is relatively recent, dating back to the constitution of the State of Virginia, written by Thomas Jefferson, and the slightly later First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which states that: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or preventing the free exercise thereof..." Note that nothing is said concerning the various churches' positions-it simply limits the U.S. Government from establishing one or another church as the "official" religion.

Canada does not have an equivalent governing statement, either in the British North America Act or in the Constitution Act of 1982.

What Canada does guarantee every one of its citizens is "freedom of religion." Article 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of religion and conscience..." There is no statement of "separation of church and state."

In Canada, freedom of religion means the numerous churches and religious bodies of our country are free to speak about what our governments do or fail to do.

Political freedom is not based upon the relativistic idea that all conceptions of the human person have the same value and truth, but rather, on the fact that political decisions are concerned with very concrete realizations of the true human and social good in a given historical, and cultural context.

When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility.

It's not really surprising that the recent Vatican instruction states: "When recognition of homosexual unions is proposed ... the Catholic law maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral."

It's not much of a stretch to argue that if it is gravely immoral to vote in such a manner, then a leader who introduces, promotes and ties the hand of his cabinet to support such legislation bears an even heavier moral burden and consequent judgment.

In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia. Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. Analogously, the family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability. Other forms of cohabitation cannot be placed on the same level as marriage.

When individuals, representing the Church's teaching office, intervene in the social realm, the intent is not to eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. On the contrary, it is to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good.

What is at issue is the duty to be morally coherent, found within one's conscience, which is one and indivisible. There cannot be two parallel lives. On the one hand, the so-called "spiritual" life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called "secular" life, that is life in a family, at work, in the social responsibilities of public life and culture.

The branch engrafted to the vine, which is Christ, is to bear its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity.

It is difficult to find the moral coherence in the actions of those who are prepared to move away from the definition of marriage overwhelmingly supported in Parliament as recently as June 8, 1999, when a motion clearly defining marriage as "the union of one man and one woman" was passed by a vote of 216 to 55.

This issue is too important to be simply left to politicians to decide. We need much more debate and discussion and input from Canadians.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

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