Archbishop Prendergast on Canada's Push for Same-Sex Unions

Halifax Prelate on “Hate Crimes,” Intolerance and the Fight for Marriage

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HALIFAX, Nova Scotia, OCT. 3, 2003 ( An archbishop cautions that the push for same-sex marriage in this country is not just “a peculiarly Canadian thing.”

In recent months the Canadian government has proposed a redefinition of marriage and has added “sexual orientation” as a protected category in its genocide and hate-crimes legislation. Both issues have spurred large-scale social debate in the country.

Halifax Archbishop Terrence Prendergast shared with ZENIT his thoughts on the same-sex marriage proposal, the “hate crime” bill and the issues challenging Catholics around the world.

Q: What is the status of the Canadian government’s proposal for same-sex marriage? Will it be approved?

Archbishop Prendergast: On June 17 the federal government proposed to redefine the public meaning of marriage. To the surprise of some — including, it appears, the government itself — this action has sparked a major social debate in Canada.

Important sectors of Canadian society, including major religious, cultural and aboriginal communities, are coming to the defense of the historic and common human understanding of marriage.

The government referred its proposal to redefine marriage as a “union of two persons” to the Supreme Court of Canada [SCC]. The courts have driven forward this new conception of marriage and the government was seeking to toss it back “into their court” for more support.

The Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing for the Reference on April 16, 2004. It would be unlikely for the SCC to come back with a decision before October of 2004.

There still is a possibility that the government could introduce legislation before the Supreme Court deals with the Reference. Some commentators argue that the close vote on the recent Canadian Alliance Party’s motion to reaffirm the existing definition of marriage — it was defeated 137 to 132 — sends a strong signal that the government would lose any open vote on the marriage question.

Furthermore, if the legislation were tabled in the fall session of Parliament, there would be very little time for a meaningful debate.

Some Liberals are arguing that we have had sufficient public and parliamentary debate already and it would be legitimate to press for a quick vote in order to get this issue off the table before the Liberal Party’s Leadership Convention on Nov. 12, and a federal election probably in the summer of 2004.

It seems that the passion and strength of the public opposition to this court- and Cabinet-led push to redefine marriage is upsetting most of the political timetables.

Q: A government official recently proposed legislation to make it a “hate crime” to speak out against homosexuality or homosexuals. How would the Church respond to such a proposal?

Archbishop Prendergast: On Sept. 17, the House of Commons did vote in favor of New Democratic Party representative Svend Robinson’s private member’s bill — Bill C250 — to add “sexual orientation” to the list of identifiable groups protected by legislation prohibiting hate speech. A slim majority, 141 to 110, passed the motion.

Opponents argued that the addition of “sexual orientation” did not add more protection for homosexuals since the current criminal code is sufficient.

Secondly, there have been serious concerns about the freedom of individuals to express intellectual, moral and religious concerns in the area of sexuality. There is concern that the legislation will be used to criminalize and outlaw moral and religious opposition to homosexual lifestyles.

In Ireland, “sexual orientation” was been added to the Irish Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act. Recent events suggest that the fears for religious freedom are justified.

Recently, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties targeted the Vatican document on same-sex marriage for treading on “dangerous” grounds. Council director Aisling Reidy argued that the document could be used as a tool to incite hatred against homosexuals. To be convicted of the criminal act of “promoting hatred” carries penalties of imprisonment.

It should be noted that the Canadian legislation was amended to provide some explicit protection for religious belief. The amendment exempts individuals, “if, in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text.” It’s difficult to know how much protection this amendment will afford.

Finally, it should be noted that the specific term used in the legislation is “sexual orientation,” not homosexuality. The use of this vague and indeterminate concept may lead to further difficulties in law. Arguably, any persistent form of sexual activity or desire, such as pedophilia, could be classified as a “sexual orientation.”

Q: To expand on the “hate crime” issue: How should Catholics form their attitudes on homosexuality, that is, hating the sin, loving the sinner? How could the Church best present this teaching publicly, so as not to seem “intolerant”?

Archbishop Prendergast: Catholic institutions have had a remarkably good record in promoting an ethos that fosters respect for others without sacrificing their core beliefs and convictions.

Sociologists have noted the exemplary reputation of Catholic parochial schools in nurturing respect for the dignity of other persons whatever their background — see “Catholic Schools and the Common Good” from Harvard University Press.

Can the Church present its deeply held convictions on sexuality in today’s cultural climate without seeming intolerant to some folk? Probably not.

Catholics need to do what Catholics should be doing: affirming the fundamental dignity of all human beings, proclaiming basic moral and religious truths, and acknowledging our common human struggle to live these truths.

From a Catholic perspective, the struggle with sin is part of human life. Do homosexuals struggle with the dimension of sexuality? Welcome to the club of being human.

Q: In recent weeks, has there been any change in ecumenical relations among religious faiths in Canada over the same-sex marriage issue?

Archbishop Prendergast: Marriage springs out of a deep layer of human life. In the Genesis narrative it emerges with the very creation of the human species. It predates religions, confessions, churches and temples.

The current debate has rallied many religious and cultural traditions back to this primal common ground that we all stand upon and live out of. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, aboriginal religious traditions, etc., find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder in their affirmation of marriage.

Q: What has been the response of Canadian bishops at the pastoral level? Are the faithful being encouraged from the pulpits to stand up against the same-sex marriage proposal?

Archbishop Prendergast: In November of 2002, after the Minister of Justice invited Canadians to contribute to the discussion regarding extension of access to marriage to same-sex partners, Canadian Conference of Bishops President Jacques Berthelet made a statement.

Bishop Berthelet said, “Married people have a lot to contribute to this national dialogue because they know from experience the central role that marriage plays in the creation and nurturing of children and the stability of the family.” He urged Catholics, especially those who live their vocation in the married state, to get involved in the national discussion.

Despite such encouragement, the nation and Catholics still look to the bishops rather than to well-informed laymen and women to articulate the Church’s position. The result has been that, with rare exceptions, our preparation for this public debate has not been adequate.

Indeed, survey data indicate that Catholics tend to lean more favorably towards the redefinition of marriage compared to
other religious groups. Those in favor of redefining marriage have done most of the political and intellectual labor in this debate.

However, there is a very deep public unease about the redefinition of marriage — even among those who are ardent defenders of gay rights. There needs to be more investment in communication, more intellectual labor and more basic work to get the message out in a way that will resonate with the public and speak to this visceral sense that something is wrong about this profound change to the public meaning of marriage.

Among us, a few priests have disagreed with the Vatican “Considerations” issued to assist Catholic politicians in discerning a faith-based contribution to this public debate and have been lionized by the media for doing so.

Many more of the clergy have spoken from the pulpit about marriage and the issues involved in the government’s proposal and found themselves supported by the laity. These are now signing petitions, calling their members of Parliament to tell of their displeasure with the proposed changed definition of marriage, and taking other actions to affirm the traditional definition of marriage.

Bishops have written pastoral letters on marriage and encouraged working with other Christians and like-minded citizens to picket the offices of parliamentarians or hold vigils and rallies to make our position known. Other initiatives, such as an academic symposium on marriage in October, are under way. This issue may yet galvanize the Catholic faithful into going public with their faith.

Sadly, leading Catholic politicians of the governing Liberal Party — including the current Prime Minister, the Prime Minister-designate, the Justice Minister and other prominent Cabinet ministers — seem to have decided to separate the reflection their faith community offers them on this issue from influence on the public policy they espouse.

Q: What does it say about Canada that the same-sex marriage proposals have gotten this far?

Archbishop Prendergast: Defenders of marriage in other countries should be cautious of treating this as a peculiarly Canadian thing. Just four years ago our parliamentarians were giving a resounding “yes” to traditional marriage — the 1999 vote to reaffirm marriage as a union of a man and a woman passed 216 to 55.

Canada is following trends that we have seen begun in Europe, trends deeply embedded in many Western countries. There are sectors in our society that want to drastically redefine marriage and reduce it to a close relationship between consenting adults. Indeed, this development mirrors the direction of a recent White Paper issued by the Law Reform Commission of Canada, reflecting the thought of the Law Society of Canada.

The imposition of this new, impoverished vision of marriage appeared to take place with little fanfare or debate in Holland and Belgium. It just slipped through. However, in Canada, a serious social debate is simmering. Indeed, we are in the midst of major political warfare over the meaning of marriage. Many ordinary Canadians are coming forward to take a stand.

Canadians seem mild and polite, but they have a gutsy determined streak and are willing to go against insurmountable Dieppe-like odds if the cause is right. We are seeing a significant number of these ordinary Canadians joining together in an intrepid “fellowship of the ring” to fight this good fight.

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