Canadians battle over Church-State separation

Canadian PM Paul Martin Canadians will go to the polls later this month in their first winter election
in 25 years. Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was expected to lead his minority
Liberal Party to victory when campaigning began, is fighting to keep ahead of
Conservative opposition leader Stephen Harper. Although the election was called
after a non-confidence vote triggered by a corruption scandal, other issues have
dominated the campaign, amongst them Canada’s controversial legalisation of
same-sex marriage. Harper is committed to allowing a review of the legislation
adopted last July, while Martin has strongly defended it as a basic human right.

Martin’s small-l liberal views on social policy such as abortion and same-sex marriage have not endeared him to the Catholic Church. Like many politicians on the other side of the border, he claims that he separates his privately held Roman Catholic beliefs from his job as a politician. This is what separation of Church and State is all about, he argues.

Is it?

The expression “separation of Church and State” has two very distinct meanings. In one case, it refers to the notion that we are entitled to be free from coercion as regards matters of religious faith and that there should be no social or legal discrimination based on religious beliefs.  This is the standard Judeo-Christian view, based on Christ’s urging to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.  

The other meaning of separation of Church and State argues that religion is an entirely private matter and that in a pluralistic society moral judgments rooted in a religious tradition must be deemed irrelevant when debating public issues.

This second meaning, based on a strictly secularist view of religion, is itself predicated on an unproven assumption. It presupposes that, to the extent that any view can be linked to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is nonrational and, therefore, ineligible to public debate. In other words, only arguments emanating from a non-religious tradition are deemed to be potentially rational. By claiming a monopoly over what it calls “public reason”, this form of radical secularism assumes that all religiously-grounded moral positions are in fact devoid of any rationality.

However, using Prime Minister Martin’s own view on abortion or same-sex marriage, it is possible to show that religiously informed moral positions can be defended by appealing to publicly accessible reasons and are rationally superior to any other. Indeed it can be shown that Mr. Martin’s position, in addition to being inconsistent with official Catholic teaching, fails the test of reason. This can be done by contrasting the rationale underlying the Church’s view of abortion and that of Mr. Martin. (The same kind of demonstration could be done using same-sex marriage as an example, but it would be lengthier).

As a Catholic, Martin’s strongest conceivable rationale for supporting abortion would be along the following lines. The Church has always thought that only certain moral obligations can, or should, be legally enforced. In a pluralistic world, if different religious authorities hold different views as to whether a particular practice should be or not be prohibited by the State, the latter should refrain from prohibiting it. Particularly in the case of private matters, such as homosexual acts and abortion, where there is no moral consensus, the principle of the greatest freedom for the greatest number requires that the beliefs of “some” not be turned into laws applicable to “all”. One can defend the right of women to “choose” to abort without denying the wrongfulness of abortion or the right of the Church to declare it morally wrong. The defense of the “pro-choice” position follows from the rights of all to freedom of conscience. No non-Catholic should be forced by the State to abide by Catholic teaching.

This line of reasoning presupposes that abortion is essentially a matter of religion and should be understood as a particular case of the general right to freedom of conscience. However, this is emphatically not how the Catholic Church understands the issue. She denies that abortion is a “private matter” and equates it with a violation of the rights of one human being -- the unborn child -- by another.  What this means is that the Church’s opposition to abortion is grounded in natural law arguments based in reason, defensible apart from Revelation. Abortion contradicts not only God’s will, but right reason.

The rationale for the Church’s opposition to abortion is most clearly stated in John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae: “Civil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights…First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being. While public authority can sometimes choose not to put a stop to something which – were it prohibited – would cause more serious harm, it can never presume to legitimize as a right of individuals…an offense against other persons caused by the disregard of so fundamental a right as the right to life. The legal toleration of abortion or of euthanasia can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience of others…”  

What this means is that Catholic politicians who, like Paul Martin, are “personally opposed but pro-choice” utterly reject the way in which their Church views abortion. In supporting the “pro-choice” position, they are in effect saying: “I deny to unborn human beings the inviolable right to life which I claim for myself and for other human beings”. However strongly they may hope that women will abstain from exercising their “right” to abort, they deny the protection against killing owed to all.

Mr. Martin’s argument about separation of Church and State presupposes that the Church’s teaching on abortion is based on non-rational beliefs that he shares but that he cannot allow himself to be guided by as Prime Minister of a pluralistic society. By doing so, he demeans and contradicts the official teaching of his Church. One is left wondering why he takes pride in claiming to be a “strong Catholic”.
Richard Bastien is a Canadian freelance writer.


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  • Richard Bastien