Some pro-lifers fear it fails to give due prominence to abortion as a defining issue

Social justice issues took centre stage when a presentation in followup to the Ontario Catholic Bishops Conference 1998 document Choosing a Government was held in Hamilton March 24.

A large, convention centre room packed to standing room with an audience of hundreds heard from London, Ont. Bishop John Sherlock, chair of the committee which drafted the document, and Joseph Sinasac, publisher and editor of the Catholic Register newspaper. The event was held by the diocese of Hamilton in co-operation with the Council of Catholic Service Organizations, which represents various agencies involved in religion, education, social service and health care in the Hamilton area.

Some of the pro-life activists in the audience expressed concern after the presentation about the way in which social justice issues were emphasized, while life issues were given comparatively little attention. In Choosing a Government, the point that “governments must support life” is listed ninth in a series of 11 “principles to be observed by all governments.”

“It was … one-sided,” said Don Pennell, the former and founding leader of the Ontario Family Coalition Party. “There wasn’t much opportunity to talk about other (non-social justice) issues. You were cut off very quickly. It was totally on poverty.”

Anneliese Steden, the Cambridge, Ont. grandmother who was arrested and jailed with Linda Gibbons last September for a demonstration outside a Toronto abortuary, credited Ontario’s Catholic bishops for “taking the bull by the horns” and entering into a discussion on politics. But she also thought that life issues were not adequately addressed.

“My poor include the unborn and the mother whose husband walked out on her,” she said in reference to the presentation’s emphasis on poverty-related issues. “I’m not happy with the way (the document) positions sanctity of life at the ninth level, while the dignity of the person is first. If the person is not alive, there is no dignity. So the sanctity of life comes first, then dignity.”

Current FCP leader Giuseppe Gori, meanwhile, said he was encouraged that the bishops held such a meeting, and that “the Church … recognizes that it shouldn’t be relegated outside of politics. Gori called the meeting “a step in the right direction.”

During his address, Bishop Sherlock railed against overweening desires for profit, the thirst for power, and “structures of sin” which, he said, create a cultural climate that militates against a sense of social responsibility. He said Catholics, as people committed to the social reality of human existence, have to do their utmost to eliminate scourges such as hunger and homelessness. “It is the duty of all citizens to be informed, to vote and to participate politically,” he said.

Sinasac, in his address, questioned why there is a belief that Christians should stay out of the public and political spheres when, by census counts, 86 per cent of Canadians affiliate themselves with that religious persuasion.

“Faith is a force that shapes our entire lives,” he pointed out. “If you take your faith seriously, you should take your vote seriously … Catholics believe faith is not private.”

In a question-and-answer session with Bishop Sherlock, several members of the audience raised questions about the bishops, the Choosing a Government document and life issues.

Pennell rose to ask about why “the most important aspect” of social justice wasn’t being addressed in a questionnaire sent to Ontario party leaders by the Catholic Church and the Inter-Faith Social Reform Coalition.

“Why wasn’t the abortion issue tackled? (Opposition to abortion) is one of the main principles of the Catholic Church.”

Bishop Sherlock replied that abortion is being tackled “very powerfully,” not only by pro-life groups that he supports, but by the Ontario Catholic bishops themselves.

“The Inter-Faith Social Reform Coalition is agreed on many things. And many partners in it are agreed on the abortion issue. Some of them are not. The Anglican and United Churches belong to this, as well as the Jewish community, the Hindus, the Buddhists … some of these agree with our position on abortion. Not all do. So let us at least fight together on the issues on which we are united.”

Bishop Sherlock agreed with Pennell that abortion is the most fundamental of social justice issues.

Gori then asked about the wisdom of taking a “least-of-three-evils” approach to voting, when a fourth political party, the FCP, stood in solidarity with the Catholic Church on virtually all issues. Referring to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life, Gori pointed out that only when there is no alternative should a citizen consider voting for the least of several evils.

Bishop Sherlock replied that the FCP has never elected a member to the provincial Legislature, and that a vote for the party is a futile one. He said he had voted for the FCP in the past “with sad resignation.”

Gori followed up by pointing out that pro-family elements within Ontario’s mainline political parties have been completely incapable of effecting changes on life and family issues in the last four years.

The bishop argued in response that a single independent member is also unlikely to have an impact on these issues, and that while he honours and sympathizes with the efforts of FCP candidates, “there are pro-life candidates in other parties.”

Steden asked Bishop Sherlock for guidance at a time when the expansion of privileges to homosexuals in Ontario seems imminent

The bishop replied, “That’s a tough question, I acknowledge it’s a tough question, and I’ll try to answer it, knowing that many of you may not agree with my answer.”

He stressed that homosexuals must, first of all, be seen as persons possessing the same fundamental, inalienable dignity bestowed on everyone created and redeemed by Christ. He then said that he believes it is not necessary for Christians to oppose the concept of homosexuals enjoying the same benefits held by others.

“But I would like to extend (benefits) to anybody who is living together – even two sisters and two brothers,” he said. “I think you can do that without approving of whatever sinful relationships might be involved.”

However, Bishop Sherlock stressed that the sanctity of the marriage covenant was untouchable.

“We should refuse to recognize a relationship other than a relationship between a woman and man publicly taken to and witnessed to before the community as a marriage.”