The Dangers of Canada's Move Toward Same-Sex Marriage

Halifax Archbishop Prendergast Sounds a Strong Warning

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OTTAWA, JULY 16, 2003 ( Canada’s recent moves toward same-sex marriage represent an «abrupt closure on a fundamental issue for democratic debate,» warns an archbishop.

In this interview with ZENIT, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, sized up the problems that lie ahead for the country.

Q: Could you explain briefly what the Canadian government is doing in terms of same-sex marriages? Is it «marriage» in the full legal sense? Or something less than that?

Archbishop Prendergast: On June 10, 2003, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the common law definition of marriage as the union for life of a «man and a woman» to the exclusion of all others and replaced it with the concept of a «union of two persons.»

The federal government refused to appeal this judgment. While the draft legislation is not yet public, nevertheless all indications point to the government’s complete concession to the redefinition of marriage mandated by the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Q: What are the immediate problems that would arise from the government’s action?

Archbishop Prendergast: First, it places an astonishing and abrupt closure on a fundamental issue for democratic debate. On June 10 the Ontario Court of Appeal released its controversial judgment abolishing the common law definition of marriage and redefining marriage as a «union of two persons.»

On June 12, political maneuvering effectively destroyed six months of work by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

On June 17, the Prime Minister declared the government’s intention to follow the lead of the Ontario court and to redefine the law of marriage.

The breathless speed of these developments pushed aside the numerous contributions and concerns raised by Canadians at the parliamentary hearings. It undermined a process of democratic debate that was just beginning to get under way.

Second, from the perspective of faith traditions dedicated to the common human understanding of marriage as a union of man and woman, this legal redefinition signals the end of the state’s support for marriage as we know it. This redefinition transforms the civil institution of marriage into a registered domestic partnership system for adults in a co-dependent relationship.

This redefinition eliminates the distinctive characteristics of marriage. The redefinition of marriage proposed by the courts and now by the federal government argues that there is no «rational connection» between marriage and its sex-bridging, procreative and child-rearing purposes.

It even goes further. Marriage so redefined becomes an institution designed to meet the requirements of same-sex forms of life, but not the complex needs and aspirations of opposite-sex conjugal life. The Ontario Court of Appeal put it bluntly: «The question to be asked is whether the law takes into account the actual needs, capacities and circumstances of same-sex couples, not whether the law takes into account the needs, capacities and circumstances of opposite-sex couples.»

This development will have the most impact upon the young generation of Canadians facing the future. This decision signals to young men and women that law and public policy are indifferent to the unique social project that marriage constitutes, namely bringing men and women together into a stable and intimate form of life for conceiving and raising their children.

This decision means the further erosion of marriage as a unique and vital cultural institution. It would be reasonable to predict that this development points to more marital instability and further declines in marriage and birth rates.

Q: What approach are the Canadian bishops taking to deal with the issue?

Archbishop Prendergast: Generally speaking, the Canadian bishops have acted vigorously. The president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Jacques Berthelet, wrote a strong letter to the Prime Minister protesting the government’s refusal to carry out its legislative duties, leaving the matter to the courts.

The members of the Permanent Council, who were meeting when the Prime Minister announced the Cabinet’s refusal to appeal the Ontario Court of Appeal decision, likewise expressed regret at governmental inaction.

The Board of the Catholic Office for Life and the Family, meeting in Ottawa at the end of June, lamented the abdication by legislators of their duty to guide society in the field of marriage and the protection of the embryo in issues of reproductive heath.

In early July, the regional Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops [OCCB] joined forces with other religious and social groups, who had been granted intervener status in the Ontario case, to take the remarkable step of doing what the federal government had refused to do, namely appeal the Ontario Court of Appeals decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The OCCB collectively and individual bishops across the country are encouraging individuals and groups of Catholics to write, phone and otherwise communicate with their Members of Parliament, telling them of their unease with this change in the definition of marriage. Others have encouraged petitions to be taken up after Sunday Mass. The media have begun to notice and report on these steps even as they generally seem to side with the direction taken by the courts and politicians.

Q: Given the position taken in a number of recent legal judgments on the issue of homosexuality, do you fear that in the near future the Church could be accused of «hate crimes» for upholding Catholic doctrine on homosexuality?

Archbishop Prendergast: The courts have denounced as discriminatory the common human understanding of marriage as the union of man and woman. This ominous legal development casts a very dark shadow over both religious freedom as well as freedom of speech itself. It does seem unlikely that the courts would enter the sanctuary and support a direct legal challenge to the very «doctrine of the Catholic Church.»

However, the real problem lies in the freedom of religious traditions to speak in public. The courts are already cleansing the public square of views that do not fit with the ethos of sexual relativism that they seem determined to impose on Canadian society. There should be no illusions about the next stage in the imposition of this new public norm of marriage.

Marriage is a deep part of the texture of everyday life and culture. Marriage is foundational for lay Catholic life. How can this common vision of marriage as the unique union of man and woman be openly fostered in the public square — in education, public media, political and professional settings — when it is denounced as «discriminatory» and «unconstitutional»?

Q: How is this issue affecting ecumenical relations in Canada?

Archbishop Prendergast: A recent meeting in Montreal that brought together religious leaders from the Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities demonstrated considerable unanimity and concern.

Religious traditions can no longer presume the existence of a public culture supportive of marriage as a pillar for their life. In fact, they can assume that public authorities will be actively promoting an ideology of human relationships that bears little or no resemblance to the common core vision of marriage, which sustains most faith communities. And they will use the force of law to ensure the dominance of that vision.

Canadian faith traditions must stand shoulder to shoulder in order to support each other in the challenging task of promoting an authentic vision and culture of marriage in our society.

Q: Is there anything good that could come out of this whole controversy? Will it prompt Catholics to do more for upholding the faith? Or it a political oddity, or it is a sign of what most Canadians r
eally believe?

Archbishop Prendergast: Anything good? This watershed moment in the history of marriage in Canada is a call to action.

Given the fact that law and public policy have severed their connection to marriage, religious communities must now recognize that the full burden for the social and cultural support of marriage in Canadian society now falls squarely upon their shoulders.

They must consciously dedicate themselves to the task of sustaining and supporting marriage. They must stand together and collaborate in this effort recognizing that they share common good in the health and vitality of marriage culture in Canada. They must make a renewed commitment to creatively teach and promote an authentic vision of marriage to our culture and to future generations. They must invest in programs to promote marriage education and enrichment.

Q: How would the bishops advise the faithful, if in the future the law requires equal treatment of homosexual couples in, say, apartment rentals? How could Catholic landlords give to God and to Caesar?

Archbishop Prendergast: This issue is complex and involves several interconnected principles. First of all, one should note that renting to a homosexual couple does not violate the principle of «cooperation in evil» any differently than that of a divorced and remarried couple (also living in an «objectively irregular situation»). The right to housing is a basic human right, defended consistently in magisterial teaching.

In light of Church teaching that homosexual persons «must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. … Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided» — see the Catechism, No. 2358 — the Church should do all it can to help gays and lesbians live stable, loving and chaste lives. This means encouraging spiritual integrity and personal growth.

Given the current climate of opinion in Western countries, there are probably more effective and just ways of defending the principle of the sanctity of marriage than endorsing a discriminatory housing position that would place Catholics in a position of civil disobedience. It would be better to stick to the moral argument — the call to chastity — than to place the burden on enforcing moral positions, which are not defended by a majority in society or permitted in civil law.

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