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Religious voices belong in the public square   

Fr. Raymond De Souza

The debate over homosexual unions has shed light on the current state of religious liberty in Canada. The news is not good, as the totalitarian impulse to silence religious voices has emerged.

Father Raymond De Souza

The Catholic Church last week, from the Vatican to Kingston, Ont., where my own archbishop wrote a letter read at all Masses last Sunday said that homosexual unions are not in fact equivalent to marriage, and that attempts to pretend as much in the civil law must be opposed by Catholics as a matter of conscience. It would be hard to think of something less newsworthy; after all, the unanimous teaching of all the great religious traditions has held as much for, well, about three or four millennia. But it was newsworthy, because it is now thought rather extraordinary that a religious body would speak authoritatively on matters debated in the public square. (At least when it comes to sex, about which more later.)

Many influential voices in Canada reacted strongly against last week's interventions. Kevin Bougher of Vancouver was representative of that sentiment when he wrote on the Post letters page that "the Catholic Church should stick to its preaching," and not "stick its nose into the affairs of the state." The more erudite National Post editorial board approved of those who "said the Vatican should butt out."

Butt out? Sticking its nose into "the business of the state"? Who would have thought that a church speaking on marriage would be accused of trespassing on exclusively secular territory? But that is the consequence of a state that grows ever larger, inserting itself into more and more sectors of social life and civil society. The totalitarian impulse demands that wherever the state advances, the churches and everyone else must retreat.

Now that the state is omnipresent in education, health care and social services, intolerant secularism demands that those fields be purged of so-called "religiously based views." Evangelical colleges that teach traditional sexual mores, Catholic hospitals which refuse to do sterilizations, Christian street workers who offer moral reform rather than free needles to drug addicts all such are constantly on guard against the demands of an ideology that requires that wherever the state goes, secularism must be imposed in its wake. Which might be tolerable if the state would limit itself to its "own affairs" as it were, but the modern state entangles itself in almost every aspect of civil life, so much so that it is nearly impossible to operate in education, health care or social services without state involvement.

Now that the state is arrogating to itself the power to redefine marriage, influential voices are telling the churches to retreat from that field too.

The historically illiterate claim that all this is demanded by the "separation of church and state." But such separation was instituted precisely to protect religious freedom from state coercion. Despite the bogeyman of the church running the state, the danger has been quite the opposite since at least the French Revolution. The modern state aggregates more and more power to itself, and thus is tempted to squeeze out of public life those with whom it disagrees.

In Ireland, which is currently suffering a spectacularly intense secularist frenzy, homosexual lobby groups have suggested that bishops who distribute last week's Vatican document might be prosecuted under Irish hate crimes legislation. We have already had Canadian cases that make it not unthinkable that the judicial apparatus may arrogate to itself the right to determine what churches may or may not teach about homosexuality, and mete out penalties to those who choose, to borrow a phrase from the apostles, "to obey God rather than man."

The federal government's Supreme Court reference is particularly worrisome. The government is asking the court whether the Charter protects the right of churches to determine how they administer their sacraments. Apparently that needs to be clarified today. Equally chilling is the attitude of many who support the Prime Minister's proposed legislation, boasting that the government will not "force" churches to marry gay couples. We are not grateful. It is not a compromise, much less a benevolent act, for the state to refrain from a massive violation of basic religious liberties. Senior members of Canada's federal government are patting themselves on the back for not doing what even actual totalitarian states blanched at doing, namely interfering in the administration of the sacraments. It is an ominous trend.

For the time being though, Catholic clergymen are being told that their voices are not welcome in the public square. According to some, we are to butt out, having lost somewhere along the line the right to participate in democratic debate. Last week's interventions were instances of the Vatican and Catholic bishops addressing Catholic politicians. A political culture which snarls at communication between pastors and parishioners has already been infected by the totalitarian impulse.

At the moment, the snarling appears to be limited to the political culture's sexual obsession. Catholic bishops speak out all the time on the ethical dimension of public policy, on everything from poverty to gambling to the environment. The Vatican was big on the anti-landmines treaty and advocates international debt relief. Rarely is it told to "butt out." But when it comes to sexual questions abortion, marriage and divorce, homosexuality, contraception and abstinence then our political culture unsheathes its totalitarian claws.

In 1991, Pope John Paul II said that a "democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism." Many thought him alarmist. Yet we are already seeing that when religious freedom is devalued, the totalitarian impulse for the state to control ever more vast areas of common life begins to threaten the freedom of the churches.

Last week the churches spoke loudly. That so many want them to be silent is worrying for the state of our democratic culture. For now, the churches are being told to shut up. What will happen when they don't?


Father Raymond J. De Souza, "Religious voices belong in the public square." National Post, (Canada) 7 August, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Father Raymond J. De Souza is a Catholic priest in Ontario, Canada.

Copyright 2003 National Post



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved