Legislating Morality

So, Catholic Bishops want Catholic politicians to conform to Vatican directives when voting on moral issues—and Catholic politicians are refusing to listen to them!

I’m on the side of the politicians.

We have to understand what the issue is about.

Government is all about imposing law, order and justice. Force is used with the consent of the community, to insist on behaviours that keep society together by stopping people from doing injury to each other, and taking action when they do. Civil and criminal laws set out the parameters of what is allowed and what is not, so that we can all live together in a peaceable and prosperous society. Justice requires that there be a precise balance between damage done by people and penalties imposed on them—‘an eye for an eye’, and so on—and between taxes paid to government and value received from government. Democratic government, for all its faults, has been devised to achieve this result.

Such is the basis of our Common Law, and the religion of the Old Testament.

Christianity is not the same. Jesus’s inspiration was to tell his followers that they could bring peace and healing to a world that had fallen short of keeping the Law, by asking them voluntarily to forgo what justice would have given them: to forgive injustices, to go the second mile, to bless those who persecute them, and so on. Now this is a wonderful way of living, and it makes for a friendly, forgiving, generous society—but the catch is that, if this behaviour is imposed by the force of government, it is unjust.

We see this injustice when we marvel at Muslim countries imposing death sentences for persons dealing in alcohol, or stoning victims of rape because they have been guilty of adultery. What we may not notice is the degree to which Christianity has also been incorporated into law in our own society. Lord Atkin, for instance, established the ‘foreseeability of injury’ test which is the foundation of the modern law of negligence, and so of our whole motor vehicle insurance industry, by a reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Equally, our own laws on marriage and divorce are based on Christ’s “counsel of perfection” on sexual relations—monogamy, permanence, heterosexuality and fidelity, which goes way beyond what leading Old Testament figures—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David or Solomon, for instance—ever achieved, or Old Testament law demanded.

During the past few years, we have seen a gradual abandonment in Canada of laws that were essentially legalizing Christian morality—things like banning divorce, or Sunday shopping restrictions. The current political debate is about the legal recognition of homosexual unions. The lawyer in me queries the legality of the federal government widening the definition of ‘marriage’, to embrace a matter that was clearly one of provincial ‘property and civil rights’ by the law at the time of Confederation, but that is another matter altogether. The question remains.

In the Old Testament, we read that David and Jonathan had a love ‘passing the love of women.’ Ruth’s dedication to her mother in law Naomi is an equal example of loyal commitment on the feminine side. Homosexuality and bestiality are condemned in Leviticus, along with other matters that today we would disregard as trivial. Adultery is prohibited in the Ten Commandments, but has never been made an offence under our criminal law. The condemnation of homosexuality in the New Testament comes principally from a few passages of Saint Paul, though in the pagan world to which he wrote, it was certainly not a crime.

It is such a temptation—and ultimately a disaster—for churches, who can well expect their members willingly to embrace particular styles of conduct, to attempt to make such conduct part of the law of the land. Surely, the decline of church attendance particularly in Quebec, and disregard for Catholic teachings on contraception and sex out of wedlock by those who still count themselves among the faithful, is closely connected with resentment at the enormous involvement of the Catholic Church there in provincial and federal politics in the years before and during World War II. Politicians elected to represent the views of their constituents have a duty to represent those constituents, not their spiritual advisors.

Churches can certainly tell their members and the world that they have the key to successful living, happiness, eternal bliss and a healthy society for those who adopt their way of life, and that is quite possibly true. They can certainly tell the world that it is going to hell in a handbasket unless people respect certain rules of behaviour. That is very different from using the power of government, rather than that of the Holy Spirit, to bring it about.

– Gemini, 2003*