This article by our very own Father Tim Ryan appeared in the April 11, 2004 print edition of the Catholic New Times  Tim can be reached at tryan@web.netThanks, Tim, for your courageous and articulate stand.
- Norman 

Dignity Canada Dignité
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The Troubling Tone and Tactics of the Canadian Bishops
 
By Tim Ryan, SFM
 
For many months now, Canada’s Catholic bishops have conducted a vigorous campaign of opposition to decisions of our courts and governments aimed at broadening the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Catholics have been encouraged to pressure our government to abandon its chosen path. However, many of us in the church simply do not agree with the bishops’ fundamental assertion that “for the common good of society ... marriage needs to be preserved as an institution uniting two members of the opposite sex.”
 
The tone and tactics of the bishops’ campaign have also been deeply troubling. Particularly on such matters of human rights and social policy, our bishops have to know that many Catholics will have come to a different position in conscience. And within the broader public debate, greater sensitivity and respect for other positions would have much better preserved the long-term moral authority of our church within Canadian society.
 
Perhaps the best way to situate my own convictions in this matter is to share some personal background. For the last 30 years, I have struggled along with many others to develop mutual support structures for gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities within a church that has remained generally inhospitable to the acceptance of such human diversity. While many Catholic sexual minorities have left the church behind or have opted to move on to more welcoming Christian communities, some of us have chosen to remain. In addition to trying to create and maintain a small welcoming community within the church, we have tried to engage in patient dialogue with the larger church — to share our reality and experience and to help our church deal with a sexual orientation spectrum which is far more diverse and richer than traditionally recognized. Had we been given even the most modest opportunities to share some of our experience as gay and lesbian Catholics with the leadership of our church over the last few decades, our bishops’ current position on marriage might have been impacted, or at the very least, more sensitively articulated.
 
Loving human relationships strengthen society
 
Over these three decades of experience in the gay community I have been gifted by getting to know, and often privileged to minister to, a great number of committed gay couples and families. All abstract theoretical arguments aside, I genuinely cannot even imagine how the legal recognition of these already existing, loving human relationships would do anything but help to strengthen and enrich both marriage and society.
 
An increasing number of jurisdictions in other parts of the world have taken the lead in instituting alternatives to marriage, such as “civil unions.” They have done so not only to provide an option for same-sex couples, but because many heterosexual couples in these societies also desire alternatives to traditional marriage. As I understand the reasoning of the courts in Canada and in an increasing number of other jurisdictions, the problem lies not in societies choosing to provide such alternatives to marriage. The fundamental human rights issue which must be confronted is whether a minority within a society can be discriminated against and prevented from choosing marriage from among any such available legal options.
 
Recognizing minority rights is often difficult for the majority. My understanding of fundamental Christian bias is that we are always challenged to begin our analysis of such painful struggles by seeking to understand the issue from the perspective of those currently excluded from equal treatment as children of God. Our Ontario bishops have repeatedly in the past opposed efforts to provide the gay and lesbian community with basic human rights protection. They now belatedly express a “deep respect for people with same-sex orientation.” However, I believe it is precisely their inability to honestly achieve any such respect which has prevented them from approaching this societal issue with a sympathetic ear and an open mind. They have focused all of their attention on “defending” the traditional expression of marriage while failing to courageously confront the human rights implications of continuing to exclude a minority from an institution they envision as so central a human value and institution.
 
What I have missed in the bishops’ position is even a faint echo of that spirit of the Second General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1971, which celebrated “a new awareness” among peoples. “The hopes and forces, which are moving the world in its very foundations, are not foreign to the dynamism of the Gospel ... Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel or, in other words, of the church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”
 
Last July, I was approached by parties (including the Attorney General of Ontario) who were defending the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal on same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court of Canada. I felt I simply could no longer remain silent. I agreed to submit a personal affidavit to the court expressing my support of the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal and the federal government’s policy of proposing legislation that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. I also committed myself to supporting the position “that no church or other religious authority will be forced to conduct ceremonies that are not in conformity with its beliefs and rituals.” About five months later, in early February, my affidavit was posted on “LifeSite” and thereafter given prominent coverage in the local and Catholic press.
 
Engaging the tradition
 
I have long struggled to maintain my status as an ordained Roman Catholic. Given my critical stances on a number of issues, this was not always easy. But I love the tradition in which my family, my ancestors and I have lived for many centuries. I have felt a responsibility to struggle within my church to celebrate the many gifts I found there and to help improve those areas where I found it lacking.
 
Of course, I was not naive enough to believe that authorities in the church would not be displeased with a public expression of dissent with their position on the same-sex marriage issue. But I must confess to being utterly stunned to receive, without warning, a letter from the Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese of Toronto coldly informing me that I was no longer allowed to preach or celebrate the sacraments or the Eucharist publicly. That authorities in a church I have served for more than 40 years would impose such a draconian penalty on me, because I have publicly agreed with Canadian courts and the Canadian government on a civil human rights matter and would do so without even a summary hearing or any pretense of due process still astonishes me.
 
In a subsequent meeting with the Judicial Vicar, I was assured that this suspension need not be public and would be brief, provided I made no further public statements. Then abruptly, on March 4, the archdiocese broke this agreement. It issued a news release announcing my suspension, now claiming that the action was being taken to prevent my using a pulpit to expound my personal views and to prevent me from performing civil marriages for same-sex couples. In point of fact, I have never mentioned same-sex marriage from any pulpit and have never performed civil marriages for same-sex couples or implied that I would do so. These issues are not mentioned in the letter of suspension and were never raised in conversations with the archdiocese. Public ministry has been taken away from me for one reason only: because I expressed a personal opinion — arrived at in good conscience — before a Canadian court on a human rights matter.
 
When the present controversy ends with — I am convinced — a more inclusive definition of marriage in place in Canada, I hope and pray that our bishops will do an honest evaluation of the position they took on this issue, how it was arrived at, and the way in which it was promoted both within the church and in our broader society. I would also ask that they undertake a radical in-depth evaluation of how our church can begin to incorporate respect for the most fundamental of human rights into our internal church practices — including freedom of conscience and dissent and acceptance of the most basic elements of due process in personnel matters.
 
Father Tim Ryan is a member of the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society.

Dignity Canada Dignité is Canada's organization of Roman Catholics who are concerned about our church's sexual theology, particularly as it pertains to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons. We work in collaboration with other Catholic organizations seeking reform in our church's leadership and teachings.