POLITICIANS NORMALLY don’t welcome being singled out for public criticism. Yet Charlie Angus is actually hoping he’ll continue to be the biggest target for the Roman Catholic Church’s wrath over legalization of same-sex marriage. “I’m a Catholic in exile,” says the New Democrat MP for Ontario’s Timmins-James Bay riding. “I wouldn’t want that to happen to any other MPs and their families. I’d prefer to be the sad anomaly.”
Angus has been denied communion by his parish priest since affirming his support for same-sex marriage last January. A former Catholic school trustee and choirmaster, he no longer feels welcome at his local church. His wife and three young daughters don’t go anymore either, the youngest missing her first communion as a result. And what happened to Angus could soon become the norm. Bishops from around the world are currently meeting in Rome for the first synod under Pope Benedict XVI. Among other doctrinal matters, they are discussing whether the holiest sacrament—the taking of bread and wine symbolizing Christ’s body and blood—should be withdrawn from Catholic politicians who flout Church teachings.
The newly minted Pope will mull over the synod discussions and eventually weigh in with his own views. Conservative Catholics, like Catholic Insight magazine editor Father Alphonse de Valk, hope the Pontiff—a staunch conservative who has in the past condemned “gravely immoral” politicians who support same-sex unions—will sanction the withdrawal of communion.
Currently there’s no consensus among Canadian bishops about how, or even if, Catholic politicians should be disciplined for deviating from Church teachings. That’s left to the discretion of parish priests. Hence, Windsor-Tecumseh MP Joe Comartin, another NDPer who supported gay marriage, was banned from teaching marriage preparation classes and other church activities. Sault Ste. Marie MP Tony Martin voluntarily stopped reading at his church after deciding to vote for the legislation. But, unlike Angus, both Comartin and Martin continued to receive communion. No punishment appears to have been meted out to other
Catholic MPs who supported same-sex marriage in a House vote last June that made Canada the fourth country in the world to legalize homosexual unions.
By de Valk’s calculation, roughly 130 of Canada’s 308 MPs are Catholic, including Prime Minister Paul Martin. Almost 100 of them voted for the bill. Controversial Calgary Bishop Fred Henry has said he wouldn’t give communion to the Prime Minister and even suggested Martin could be excommunicated. Other bishops have contradicted Henry, and Martin’s own parish priest, Father John Walsh, has said the PM will always be welcome to receive the sacrament in his Montreal church. But the Pope’s imprimatur would, de Valk hopes, make the discipline meted out to Angus the rule.
Whether that would compel Catholic politicians to toe the Church line, however, is debatable. “I’ll go take communion with the United Church, for heaven’s sake,” scoffs Vancouver Liberal MP Hedy Fry. Toronto Liberal MP Maria Minna says she has disagreed with the Church on a number of issues—its handling of pedophile priests, its refusal to admit women to the priesthood, its stance on same-sex marriage—and has never docilely accepted every dictum from Rome. “If my faith depended entirely on the behaviour of the institution, I don’t think we’d have too many Catholics left,” she says, contending that politicians “have a responsibility to the whole country,” not just to their church.
But Comartin worries that moderate Catholics, who are already feeling alienated, will leave and start a splinter church if the Pope condones denying communion to politicians like him. Moreover, if the Church is going to exclude liberal Catholics from communion over issues like gay marriage, where will it stop? And Angus questions how Rome would be able to justify giving the sacrament to conservative Catholics who support capital punishment in defiance of Church doctrine on the sanctity of life.
Ironically, Angus was a government invitee at the April investiture of Pope Benedict, who will now determine whether he is only the first of many Catholic MPs to be denied communion. “God,” Angus observes, “has a wonderful sense of humour.”
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