Clumsy Bishops

The Canadian Catholic Bishops have been trying to get Catholics involved in motivating Members of Parliament to oppose Bill C-38, which deals with same-sex marriage. Last Sunday at the 8:00 AM Sunday Mass St. Ignatius, instead of delivering a homily, Father Monty presented the Archbishop of Winnipeg’s Pastoral letter (available here in pdf format). Yesterday, I read in a newspaper that Fred Henry, the Bishop of Calgary, suggested on a Toronto Radio show that the Prime Minister of Canada, who is a Catholic, should be excommunicated for supporting Bill C-38.


The Canadian courts have already given same-sex coupled the right to marry. More precisely, several courts ruled that same-sex couples have the legal capacity to make a marriage contract, and if married, to divorce and divide their property in accordance with provincial marital property laws, and to claim other legal benefits and rights accruing to the married state. I explained that in that other entry. The strategy of opposing Bill C-38 is flawed, because defeating Bill C-38 will not block same-sex marriages.
The government referred Bill C-38 to the Supreme Court of Canada. I explained that process in my other entry. There was some public discussion about whether the Court should be asked to comment on whether the equality rights of gays and lesbians could be satisfied by allowing gays and lesbians to enter into “civil unions” but the government did not present that question to the court. I don’t think the Bishops publicly addressed the possibility of a law for “civil unions” and I assume they opposed it. I think gay and lesbian groups didn’t want civil unions because that would imply meant their unions would be seen as inferior to the marriages of straight couples. As I explained in the other entry, the Court ruled that Bill C-38 is valid.
Same-sex couples have many of the same legal problems as heterosexual couples – how to split up, how to divide property and pensions, how to deal with children. And, by the way, there are children. It’s a fact and it has to be addressed. To a large degee, all the Courts said is that same-sex couples should have the right to enter into civil unions that would give them the legal rights as married couples. It seems to me that the smart political strategy would be to accept civil unions and to call for the government to adjust the language of the bill to emphasize the purely civil character of the law.
The Bishops have continued to lobby against Bill C-38 and same-sex marriage (although Iblocking Bill C-38 is clearly not going to stop same-sex weddings). After the Court decision, their objectives are to convince Parliament that same-sex marriage is a flawed policy, and to convince politicians that it’s an unpopular policy. They are presenting good arguments and they were dealing with matter respectfully, until Bishop Henry began talking about excommunication. Their arguments were rationally based in history and social policy. Their main arguments and concerns, as presented to Parliament are here and here. The core of their position is that society and the state have never provided any particular legal recognition to intimate personal relationships except heterosexual marriage. Heterosexual marriage has been a cultural and legal necessity founded on the biological and social fact that sexually active and healthy heterosexual adults procreate and have families. There is biological and social reality underpinning heterosexual marriage, even for infertile couples. Same-sex marriages are founded on attraction and love, but they just aren’t similiar enough to heterosexual marriages to justify identifying the relationships as marital.
This is really an argument about perceptions and cultural values. Some Canadians perceive homosexuality to be disordered and don’t want to accept the demands of the gay-rights activists for symbolic recognition. Gay-rights advocates perceive themselves as an oppressed and repressed minority. The Bishops imply that recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages is an over-reaction to the demands of a cadre of gay-rights activists. I agree with the Bishops. We should be talking about substantive rights – due process, a fair process for dissolving the union, access to the courts, property rights. We need to treat people respectfully but respect does not mean affirming anyone’s ideological beliefs about repression, liberation and personal identity.
I think that as Church leaders, the bishops should be making these arguments. I think it is right to educate the public as this Bill goes before Parliament. But the discussion of excommunication is way over the edge.
The Church normally respects the legal freedom of Catholics to make moral errors and it respects the legal freedom of non-Catholics to follow different moral rules. In Gaudium et Spes, The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World the Bishops of the Church, assembled in Second Vatican Council generally recognized that Church, especially in pluralist societies, should not be attempting to conserve or promote cultural values, in the sociological sense, and should respect the autonomy of the political process, as long as culture and politics respect human dignity and fundamental human rights. In his 1991 Encycical letter Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II said:

The Church respect the legitimate autonomyu of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution. Her contribution to the political order is precisely her vision of the digity of the person revealed in all its fullness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word.

However the Bishops are in an alliance with Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists and some other religious groups morally opposed to homosexual behaviour and same-sex marriage, and an assortment of social conservative lobby groups. I applaud the ecumenical spirit but I am not sure where an ad hoc alliance on a social conservative issue is going to take the Bishops. The Bishops are also constrained by Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Holy Office) teachings which opposes legal recogition of same-sex unions of any kind, around the world. The Holy Office won’t make an exception for Canada, and it probably regards Canada as a test case. That, one supposes, is what fires Bishop Henry to advocate the excommunication of the Prime Minister. The Holy Office has taken a firm position on the issue, which does not accomodate the current realities of Canadian constitutional jurisprudence very well.
The Holy Office asserts that civil unions are not necessary to protect the legitimate rights of partners in same-sex unions:

Nor is the argument valid according to which legal recognition of homosexual unions is necessary to avoid situations in which cohabiting homosexual persons, simply because they live together, might be deprived of real recognition of their rights as persons and citizens. In reality, they can always make use of the provisions of law – like all citizens from the standpoint of their private autonomy – to protect their rights in matters of common interest. It would be gravely unjust to sacrifice the common good and just laws on the family in order to protect personal goods that can and must be guaranteed in ways that do not harm the body of society

That’s doesn’t stand up logically in the context of Canadian legal policy. The question is whether same-sex couples who have lived together in a committed relationship are subject to the body of laws that apply to married couples – the rules and processes known as Family Law. From a purely civil standpoint, those laws are the most appropriate laws to deal with a contract to live in an intimate and trusting relationship, made under the influence of love and lust. Same-sex couples live together for most of the same reasons that bring heterosexual couples to cohabit and marry, and their relationships give rise to the same disputes over economic disparity and property sharing. In fact some heterosexual couples don’t want kids and some same sex couples treat their unions as procreative – the way the Church want married couples to treat marriage. They raise kids born out of their prior straight relationships or they conceive kids one way or another or adopt kids.
The Holy Office’s paper on same-sex unions places a high emphasis on resisting cultural change and defeating the errors of liberal, modern and post-modern thinking. It is driven by cultural, political and philosophical concerns. Culturally, the Holy Office believes that being gay is the result of a modern culture of personal choice, personal identity, hedonism and promiscuity. The leaders of the Church believe that being gay is a moral choice rather than a psychologically or biologically determined condition, although other rational people hold different views. It wants to reform culture to create a Christian culture in which the gay-making influences are absent. There are geo-political considerations. In large parts of the developing world, culture is intolerant of homosexuality, and homosexuality and gay marriage are viewed as evidence of the decadence of Western culture. The Church is demonstrating that it shares the same views as the majority of humanity. Philosophically, the Church sees gay liberation as another manifestation of hedonism, liberalism and other incorrect systems of thought. I think the Church is right on these questions, and my personal faith or my interpretation of Catholic teachings. I agree with the Holy Office’s assertion that modern culture commodifies sexual experience in a profoundly immoral way.
However, the Holy Office’s intervention in the political process is troubling. The Church has a pastoral and teaching role. It should be supporting gay and lesbian Catholics in Europe and America with sound teaching and sensitivity to the fact that strong cultural forces reinforce their ideas about their sexuality.
In the political arena the question is whether the Holy Office should be coercing Catholics and Catholic politicians into blocking laws that create “new” gay rights or recognize sexuality and sexual orientation as fundamental human rights. The Church is concerned with the symbolism and the cultural consequences of the legitimization and normalization of homosexuality. The state is concerned with the fact that these unions exist and with dealing with the rights of people in these unions.
The Holy Office seems to have played down the question of freedom of religion. Catholics have asserted the importance of religious freedom vehemently for centuries, at least since Catholics were subjected to persecution by the secular government of Revolutionary France and through 20th century persecutions by Communist government in Eastern Europe and China. The Church was a strong advocate of Freedom of Religion in Dignitatis Humanae the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom. Religious freedom is not a one-way street. It requires the Church to tolerate the beliefs of pagans, Aquarians, Theosophists, Unitarians, atheists and hedonists who follow non-Christian moral rules.
The Holy Office is engaging in dishonest reasoning around this issue. The Holy Office says that it respects human rights and human dignity, but on its own terms. It seems to me that the Holy Office is battling against cultural forces on a highly abstract basis without any sense of the natural needs of human beings for sexual contact and intimacy. The Church is holding people to impossible standards of self-denial in their sexuality. It invokes the natural moral law but discounts medical, psychological and anthropological evidence.
The Holy Office says that the issue is so serious that any Catholic who lives in a country that recognizes gay unions is complicit in systemic evil, and it warns Catholic politicians that they have to be against gay unions. I think the Holy Office can’t invoke that reasoning on this issue. The issue calls for teaching, leadership, and right living by Catholics, but it does not require Catholics to engage in massive civil disobedience or to reject the democratic governments of their nations. That is one of the gravest errors in this teaching. Religious freedom means that Catholic politicians should support pluralism. Catholic legislators should work for the common good, and Catholic moral principles are only relevant if a law discriminates against Catholics or coerces Catholics to violate their faith.
I am mindful something that Bernard Haring, the moral theologian, wrote about the sins of power. He asked if senior Vatican officials and theologians are using their power sinfully when they proclaim dubious moral teachings as binding on the conscience of Catholics. At the time he seemed to be thinking about the harm done by the Church’s teaching on birth control including the guilt and shame of using birth control against the Church’s teaching, and all the consequences of obeying the Church’s historical controverial and flawed teachings.
Excommunication is an ecclesiastical penalty for a Catholic who has committed heinous – almost unforgiveable sins. This is question of a politician chosing to respect pluralism. The Holy Office is demanding that Catholic politicians toe their party line.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *