Dignity Canada Dignité

Following the Department of Justice Discussion Paper "
"Marriage and Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Unions", the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights travelled across Canada in 2003 to hear from Canadians on how to reconcile the traditional definition of marriage and the recognition of gay and lesbian unions within the framework of the Canadian Constitution and its equality guarantees. Following is a brief submitted by Thomas Novak of Winnipeg.

Presentation to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on the Minister of Justice’s Discussion Paper on
Marriage and the Legal Recognition of Same‑sex Unions

Submitted by Thomas Novak, Terri Willard and Linda Hathout
Dignity Winnipeg Dignité
April 4, 2003

Dignity Winnipeg is a chapter of Dignity Canada Dignité, a national organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and two-spirited Catholics and their friends.  Dignity believes:
 that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people can express their sexuality in a manner that is consonant with the teaching of Jesus Christ, and
 that all sexuality should be exercised in an ethically responsible and unselfish way.

We are not a mission of the official Catholic Church.  We rather seek to be in dialogue with the official Church, and all people of good will, on questions of faith, sexuality and social justice. 

Dignity has been active in Winnipeg for almost 30 years.  Our membership includes several couples in long-term relationships, some of whom have been together for 25 years or more.

We come today with respect for the diversity of opinions being expressed here today concerning the important and difficult choices which the Government of Canada must now in the name of the Canadian people.  We are grateful for being able to be a part of this important process.Since the dawn of Christianity, the attitude of the Christian Churches towards marriage and sexuality has evolved almost as much as have the attitudes of Western society.

For hundreds of years, the Christian Churches officially resisted having anything to do with marriage, preferring to leave its regulation to the State.  Couples did often come to their churches to seek a blessing on their commitments. (1)  But these blessings were not seen as central to Church liturgical life or discipline.  The institution of marriage was seen as something too much intertwined with questions of power, property and inheritance. (2) 

The Council of Elvira (in 306) instructed that Christians were to celebrate their marriages in the same way as non-Christians, under the authority of the Roman authorities. (3)  Even with the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent responsibilities that the Church took on in helping to re-organize civil life in Europe, the official Church continued to resist. 

It was not until the Lateran Council of 1179 that the Western Church, after much debate, began to define marriage as a sacrament, (4)  and not until the Council of Trent, in the Sixteenth Century, that a priest was required to be present at marriage ceremonies celebrated by two Catholics. (5)

Indeed, for most of the last two millennia, “traditional marriage” little resembled the model which most North Americans today think of as “traditonal”.  

Up until about 150 years ago, marriage was essentially an economic union, an exchange of land and labour, generally arranged by the families of the spouses. (6)

Until well into the industrial revolution, opposite sex marriage was  tied to the division of labour where all the economic activity happened around the home.   Men hunted, worked the fields or  made horseshoes while women raised the children, tended the house and the garden, and did the milling, baking and weaving.  Children were a necessary part of the economic equation for the additional labour they provided, and as old-age security for the family elders.  Children were raised by the team-parenting of the extended family – which would often mean the entire village.

With the industrial revolution and the separation of work from the home, the old model began to break down.  With the rise of the new ideals of liberty and individuality that characterized the romantic era, “traditional marriage” was eventually rejected as oppressive.  Men and women insisted on choosing their own partners and on getting married for love, rather than for family duty or economics.  As late as 100 years ago, articles were still being written decrying these dangerous innovations as the death of “traditional marriage” and heralding the collapse of civilization as we know it. (7)

These changes were, in fact, supported by the Churches.  Throughout the centuries, the Churches had maintained the Roman idea of marriage as a contract between two people. (8)  In church law, what makes a marriage valid is  the free consent of two individuals. (9)  The triumph of marriage as a commitment of two individuals to look after and nurture each other in love, actually contained within it the seeds of the discussion we are having here today.

Perhaps western society has come full circle.  Perhaps it is no longer necessary for the priests and ministers of the Churches to serve as a bureaucracy for civil society in registering marriages, any more than they are still needed to be the primary agents for registering births and deaths. A growing number of western jurisdictions have recognized that civil society once again has all the tools necessary to assure its own good order, and have taken back the regulation of marriage as a civil union.  This leaves it up to the churches themselves to bless – or not to bless – these unions according to whatever their current theology or discipline would mandate. Priests and ministers might continue to be delegated as officials to oversee civil marriage, in addition to their oversight of sacramental unions.  Or the Government of Canada could simply adopt the French model, requiring all marriages be subject to a civil ceremony, leaving the option of a religious celebration up to the couple.

This distinction between civil marriage and sacramental marriage formally recognizes that, although the two forms of marriage, in many respects, resemble each other and overlap in their values and ideals, civil marriage and sacramental marriage are not the same reality, sacramental marriage being less about  maintaining the civil order than in being and expression of two people’s religious faith and vocation.

Recognizing and affirming this distinction between the civil and the sacramental leaves civil society free to alter its own definition of marriage, as it has throughout the ages.  It leaves the Churches free to define sacramental marriage according to their own understanding.  It also leaves the Churches with the right and responsibility to engage governments with their own wisdom regarding changes to marriage law, as much as they have a right and a duty to speak out on any matter which touches on morality or the good of society.

Churches and faith traditions whose theology has evolved to where they feel called to celebrate the permanent union of two consenting, adult individuals, irrespective of their gender, will continue to offer ceremonies of commitment for same-sex partners.   Churches  whose theology does not permit such unions, will be fully in their rights in declining sacramental blessing to such unions.

Changes in the theology and discipline of the churches will continue to be a matter for dialogue between the leadership of these churches and their members.

Since the time of St. Augustine, much of the theological discussion around marriage has been dominated by an a very narrow understanding of “natural law” that suggests that marriage, like all sexual activity, is ordered primarily, if not exclusively, toward procreation. (10) This theology, that reduces morality to biology, no longer rings true for most men and women, whatever their sexual orientation.   And so, theologians have plunged other traditions of Christian spirituality, have studied the findings of the social sciences and have entered into dialogue with couples, straight and gay, about their experience of God and sexuality.

In doing this, this are faithful to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council which encouraged Christians ” to enter into dialogue” with the modern world and to strive to  “understand the aspirations, the yearnings, and the often dramatic features of the world in which we live”. (11)

New theologies of sexuality are emerging, theologies that understand that men and women are not just sexual machines and that the mysteries of love and human relationships cannot be reduced to a biological act.  As Thomas Aquinas himself insisted, human beings, are not just biological creatures; we are relational beings – souls – that ache to love and be loved, to merge with other souls in deep and long-lasting relationships.  Sexuality is now understood, as a language where every word or touch has the power to say to the other that “you are more valuable than the whole the universe to me”, (12) where every word or gesture has the potential to heal and transmit the love of the Creator, a love that often, but not always, achieves its ultimate expression in creation of a new life. Like other people, many gay men and lesbians feel called to live out their experience of love in a committed and responsible relationship, one that reflects the values and principles that were so well enumerated in the minister’s discussion paper:  commitment, companionship, mutual care etc. (13) This committee is now studying how best to assure that, in compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one more barrier to the open and full participation of the LGBT community in Canadian society can be removed.  The goal is to assure equality of rights – and equality of responsibilities.

Recognition of same-sex marriages will not, in itself, achieve this equality.  In the parliament of Canada and the legislatures of the provinces and territories, other steps must be taken, for example,

ˇ to assure that same sex partners have access to their partner or the child they are raising together that may lie critically ill in hospital;

ˇ to assure justice in economic matters such as pensions, insurance, inheritance and division of property upon separation, so that same-sex partners are not left without the financial resources taken for granted by other Canadians;

ˇ to assure appropriate custody of children in the event of a relationship coming to an end

We would invite the Government of Canada to follow the example of the Province of Manitoba in working with the LGBT community to study how these steps can best be achieved, so that the laws of Canada provide all couples with support they need to be able to maintain stable relationships and healthy families.
Thomas Novak
Dignity Winnipeg Dignité




(1) There is evidence that many of these requests for blessings and union ceremonies were actually for same-sex friendships.  As opposite-sex marriage was still considered primarily a matter of economic union or family alliance, same-sex partnerships or friendship unions more closely reflected the ideal of free consent of two individuals in a commitment of love.  See John Boswell, Same-sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1994, Vintage Books).

(2) See E.J. Graff, E. J. Graff, Whats Marriage For?  The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (2000, Beacon Press) and  What Marriage Means in The Advocate, February 29, 2000.

(3) William J. Bausch, A New Look at the Sacraments (1983, Twenty-Third Publications, p. 215).

(4) Bausch, page 217.

(5) Bausch, page 231.

(6) What Marriage Means in The Advocate, February 29, 2000.  This sea change in societal attitudes towards the nature of marriage is also reflected in the huge amount of literature from the 19th century that developed the theme of the conflict between two young people who desired ardently to marry for love, and the their parents who needed them to marry partners of their own choosing so as to secure a crucial family alliance.

(7) Graff, What Marriage Means.

(8) Bausch, page 215, 217.

(9) The story of Romeo and Juliet, where Friar Laurence blesses the two star-crossed lovers, well represents this very conflict between the political and economic concerns of the Capulets and Montegues versus the loving consent of the two protagonists.

(10) Thomas Aquinas, adapting the philosophical categories of Aristotle to Christian theology, held that the primary end of marriage was procreation and the rearing of offspring.  This meant that procreation was something that humans share with the animals and the rest of the natural world.  However, marriage, he wrote, also has a secondary end: mutual help and comfort.  By secondary, he means, that which builds on the primary end, that which is specifically human, specific to humans as rational beings.  Later theologians have distorted this distinction, turning Thomas meaning on its head, interpreting primary as ranking first. See André Guindon in The Sexual Language: An Essay in Moral Theology; University of Ottawa Press, page 168.

(11) Gaudiam et spes, The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, par. 3.

(12) See the ground-breaking work of Canadian theologian, André Guindon o.m.i., whose book, The Sexual Language (University of Ottawa Press, 1976) developed the idea that sexuality is the language of the body that speaks the unspeakable depths of human communication, that meaningful level where creative relations are established, maintained and deepened by a sexuality finally made language. (p. 112)

(13) commitment, companionship, mutual care and support, shared workload, shared shelter, emotional and financial interdependence and child-rearing. Department of Justice: Marriage and Legal Recognition of Same-sex Unions, A Discussion Paper, November, 2002.  Seeking Peoples Views, page 6.