Faith and politics: uneasy mix

Margaret Somerville
"Jean, Paul and Jean-Paul. Faith and Politics: uneasy mix"
The Globe and Mail
August 8, 2003, A13
"Query Here or Same-Sex Marriage"
August 8, 2003 - Page A15
Reproduced with Permission

What a mess! The same-sex marriage debate already involved multiple confusions, but the Vatican's recent document has added to them substantially.

For example, the differences between redefining marriage and the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships risk being further confused. The reasons for, or against, each one are not the same. People can be for same-sex marriage and for legally recognized same-sex partnerships; or against both; or for same-sex partnerships and against same-sex marriage; or vice versa. Exploring the reasons and objections that underlie each of these positions gives a far more nuanced picture than the one usually presented in the public square and media.

The Vatican statement and subsequent statements by some bishops have also added to the confusion between opposing same-sex marriage for religious reasons and opposing it on secular grounds. In doing so, they have also increased confusion about the differences between morality, on the one hand, and public policy and law, on the other.

Then there is the often-encountered confusion about the proper interaction between politicians' religious beliefs and their responsibilities as members of Parliament. The Vatican and some bishops have at least given the impression of putting Catholic politicians in a bind, as media stories referring to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his likely successor, Paul Martin -- both of whom are Catholics -- have been quick to point out. That impression was strongly reinforced by one bishop's statement, which can only be regarded as spiritual blackmail no matter how well-intended, that he was concerned for the fate of the Prime Minister's soul if he did not oppose legalizing same-sex marriage.

How should we sort out this confusion?

Sexual identity and behaviour are primarily personal, private matters -- although some people, in some circumstances, may choose to make the personal political. For religious reasons, or otherwise, some regard homosexual behaviour as immoral. They have a right to such a belief -- as a matter of freedom of religion and conscience -- and to express their view in the public square -- as a matter of freedom of speech. But, in a secular, democratic society that respects human rights and constitutionally protects people against discrimination, that belief itself (as compared with the fact that they hold that belief) cannot inform law or public policy.

Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin are right in stating that, although they are Roman Catholics, in acting as members of Parliament, they must take into account a much wider range of factors than the Vatican's directive on same-sex marriage. How politicians should deal with conflict between their own personal moral or religious beliefs and their obligations as parliamentarians is very complex. All politicians, not just religious ones, are open to such conflicts, because all have -- we hope -- moral beliefs. As is always required, they must act in good conscience and with integrity. Sometimes that can require having the courage to accept either political damage or the wrath of their religious community.

Opposing same-sex marriage for secular reasons is not, however, the same as opposing it just on moral or religious grounds. The former are a valid basis for public policy and law and should be taken into account by all politicians. In this regard, a "confusion strategy" used by same-sex marriage advocates is to label all objections of religious people as "religiously based," in order to dismiss both the people and their objections.

This is wrong.

Secular reasons for opposing same-sex marriage include the idea that marriage could no longer institutionalize and symbolize the inherently procreative relationship between a man and a woman.

And marriage could not establish the general norm that children have a right to know and be brought up by their biological parents and to identify their genetic relatives. These functions of marriage are important for both individuals and society, especially children.

The Vatican's intervention was not helpful to secular opponents of same-sex marriage. Because most Canadians respect homosexual people and their committed relationships and deplore discrimination, if they believe that the choice in the same-sex marriage debate is between respect for homosexual people and intolerance, they will -- rightly in my view -- choose the former. But the debate does not involve that choice, although it has been cast as such.

The Vatican also objected to legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships. But whether to legalize such partnerships as a civil institution is a civil decision. Everyone, including religious people, can make their views, including their own moral views, known. But, in a secular, democratic society, the views of religions have no special status in such decisions.

Marriage is a different matter. It is both a civil and religious institution and it cannot be changed in its civil aspects without affecting its religious elements. That means that religions have a valid voice in influencing the decision, especially when the change goes to the inherent nature of marriage. It is no answer simply to say, as the proposed federal legislation does, that no religion will be forced to conduct marriages that offend the tenets of its faith.

Marriage is not just a ceremony or ritual. It is an inextricably intermingled societal and religious institution and the current argument is about the future nature of that institution, not the ceremony through which people enter into it.

There are errors of confusion on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate.

Those advocating same-sex marriage are wrong in arguing that religion should have no public voice in relation to whether the fundamental nature of marriage should be changed. Those opposing same-sex marriage are wrong to do so in the public square (as compared with inside their religions) on the grounds of the immorality of homosexuality, or to lump in objections to the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, as the Vatican has done.

So, Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Martin, you do need to give serious weight to the objections of the religions to changing the definition of marriage, not because you are Roman Catholics, but because all politicians should do so.

And Your Holiness, with respect, the Church should leave to Caesar the things that are Caesar's. A religion's stance on the morality of same-sex civil partnerships, while it is relevant and should be heard, has no special status in the public square in a secular society.

Margaret A. Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor of Law at the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law .