Assertion, unsupported by fact, is nugatory. Surmise and general abuse, in however elegant language, ought not to pass for truth. Junius


The Language of Love

When does opposition to same sex marriage descend into hate speech? And why do religious organizations get a free pass to spew whatever nonsense they like under the cover of having "deeply-held beliefs"? I was considering these questions for a new post when Bishop Henry of Calgary issued a pastoral letter to be read by parish churches during weekly Sunday Mass. In part he said:

Since homosexuality, adultery, prostitution and pornography undermine the foundations of the family, the basis of society, then the State must use its coercive power to proscribe or curtail them in the interests of the common good.

It is sometimes argued that what we do in the privacy of our home is nobody’ s business. While the privacy of the home is undoubtedly sacred, it is not absolute. Furthermore, an evil act remains an evil act whether it is performed in public or in private.

Now it appears (and I use the verb advisedly) the Bishop of Calgary is backtracking, a little, on the extreme nature of his remarks. According to the Globe this morning, he's expressed regret about using the phrase "coercive power". "In an interview late yesterday afternoon [writes Michael Valpy of the Globe] he said if he was rewriting the letter, he would not talk about unleashing the 'coercive power' of the state." The good Bishop should be thankful that lies of commission are venal sins. As a (poor) retraction, it stretches credulity. You would have to believe that every word of this pastoral was not careful considered. Given the Bishop of Calgary's liking of the public spotlight, he must have known every sentence in the pastoral letter would be parsed by the media. He chose "coercive power" and words like "evil" precisely for the effect. He chose to be inflammatory.

Indeed, it shouldn't go unnoticed that that the Bishop is unrepentant of linking of homosexuality and "evil". And again, why can faith-based groups use all sorts of violent and bigoted language? I am not, I should point out, denying their absolute right to free speech. It merely strikes me as curious that discourse on the issue of same-sex marriage gives licence for the use of vile and defamatory language against our gay and lesbian citizens (for we are talking about people here, not an abstraction) in a way that goes virtually unchallenged by the mainstream media, and even by defenders of same- sex marriage. Can you imagine such language being used against, say, someone of a different religious denomination or ethnicity or race?

I was brought to mind of the point this morning, considering the religious history of Peterborough County. The county used to be covered with the meeting halls of the Loyal Orange Lodge, where Orangemen would fulmigate against their (literal) Catholic neighbours and French Canadians in general with language that shocks even today. And it is within my memory hearing the Catholic church described with a moral certainty by some not-so-extreme Protestant sects as the Whore of Babylon and corrupter of the world. At some point, Canadians decided that intemperate language was unjust and counter-productive to a civil society, and public utterances have ceased. For which we all should be grateful.

"But this issue is different," you say. Different is what way? In that gays and lesbians are less human? Are less deserving of fundamental respect? Certainly most churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, hold the position of "love the sinner but hate the sin", but in reality, this statement is long on feel-good rhetoric and short on substance. (Indeed, the pastoral letter quoted dispenses with even this customary nod to church teaching, except for a vague call for the church to act with "charity" --- which could mean anything, or nothing at all.) "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is merely code. It is insincere at best; at worst, it's a cover for bigotry and intolerence. It means, in truth, "I am about to say some really nasty things about gays and lesbians." It's like saying you love your mother, than proceeding to call her an awful, lazy whore. Sorry, it doesn't wash.

And where does it stop? There are fringe denominations in this country which have a frankly racist theology. Are their pronouncements above criticism because they have "deeply-held religious beliefs"? In the end analysis, what's the real difference between these and Bishop Henry? That he clothes viciousness in the language of love?

Bishop Henry is trying to pre-emptively shut down debate on whether his remarks are bigoted or not: He said to the Globe:

There aren't many people who stand up and say, "I'm tired of political correctness." And because I'm tired of it, don't try to silence me every time I open my mouth by telling me I'm a hatemonger. Because I'm not. I'm just trying to speak the truth as I see it, and I should be accorded the freedom to express my opinions and try to influence people to see things as I see them.

(I note, as an aside, that widespread coverage on the national media, not to mention on the Internet, hardly constitutes silencing. Though claiming to be a victim of oppression in the full glare of the media is a pretty neat trick, admittedly.) Bishop Henry notwithstanding, it is time to declare attacks on gays and lesbians beyond the pale of acceptable civil discourse. It needs to be put on that huge pile of Bad Ideas, like religious intolerance and racism, and forgotten about. The point, Bishop Henry, is not whether you have the freedom to express whatever opinion you have on same-sex marriage. You do, and I would be the first to defend your right to say it. Whether you have the right to defame unchallenged fellow citizens is another question altogether.

Update: Both Timmy at Voice in the Wilderness and Treehugger at The Heart of the Matter have written excellent posts on this topic well worth the time reading.


Blogger Timmy the G said...

You bring up an interesting point, Michael. How far can adherents to any faith go in expressing their beliefs if those beliefs are truly offensive or bigoted to a segment of the population?

Homosexuals are the favourite targets of some relgions. Look at the fracas Paul Martin ended up enduring in India today with Sikh leaders. (

While they were less heated in their rhetoric than Bishop Henry, how do we reconcile their clear rejection of one segment of the population? Why must a gay Catholic couple accept the fact that their relationship will never be consecrated the same way another couple's will be? What's left for them in their faith if they are told God considers them evil?

These are not small questions, but few want to tackle them because they are so thorny.

Tuesday, 18 January, 2005  
Blogger John the Mad said...

I have also posted on the inappropriateness of Bishop Henry's remarks, but your attack is over the top. The Catholic Church does not hold that homosexuals are evil. It says that homosexual sexual activity is not morally permissable. Nor is adultry, pre-marital sex, and masturbation. You may think the distinction between the person and the activity doesn't matter, but there is a clear difference.

To call his letter hate speech demeans the definition of the term. He has every right to call these activities sinful (as you have every right to call them virtuous, if you want to), .... and all sin is evil, in the sense that it turns one's spirit away from God.

Bt the way. The Church teaches that sins of omission or commission may be either venial or mortal, depending on a number of circumstances.

I believe that the process, by which this change is being pursued, is profoundly non-democratic.

Friday, 21 January, 2005  
Blogger eugene plawiuk said...

Ah you make a reasoned argument, one we won't find dribbling off the lips of Stephen Harper and his ilk, or the Church Fathers. I have made a more passionate comment on this matter on my blog.
Make the bigots pay! Tax the Churches!
And the mosques, temples, synagogues, etc.

Ok its a shaemless plug

Saturday, 22 January, 2005  
Blogger Rick Barnes said...

Thank you for your post here. I found it on My Blahg. I wrote a piece this morning and linked your article. I posted it as well on which is a progressive news site.

Monday, 24 January, 2005  
Blogger Maree said...

I would like to speak up here as an atheist, because when it comes to the issue of religious opposition to same sex marriage there is often an assumption that everyone can at least agree that it is a sticky theological issue and should be handled carefully - sometimes even to the point of compromising human rights to coddle religious groups (as would be the case if a "separate but equal" legislation were settled for.) I strenuously disagree with the notion that religious groups should have that kind of power. I understand that many have "strongly held religious beliefs" and that's their right, just as I have a right *not* to hold them. Our laws should be based on fairness and equality as set out in our Charter.

It is shocking to me that so many religious leaders get away with spreading misinformation about gays (and for that matter misinformation about a whole range of groups and issues) to their flocks, while frequently encouraging their devotees to deny their children a vital education in critical thinking or often even a factual education (devotees are rarely taught about the origins of their own bible or about the fact that a great many reputable biblical scholars conclude that the passages that christians use against gays are mistranslated and refer to temple practices of the day - not to homosexuality.)

People all over the world are routinely denied their right to information and facts, because religious authority dictates it. When an individual makes a decision based on deliberately limited or falsified information we say that they are coerced. Bishop Henry clearly knows how to handle his flock, and wants Paul Martin to take up his methods. Wide scale misleading of groups of people should not happen in a civil society... and that misleading is at the core of the problem of religious intolerance to same sex marriage.

It has been rigorously discussed in our highest courts: there are no fair, logical, reasonable grounds for denying same sex couples the right to marry. Religious groups need to accept this fact and move on - just as gays must accept the fact that churches get to spread hatred, misinformation, lies, and suspicion about them. Part of living in the world is having to accept difference and get along with others. A just society is based on sound reason, humanity, and fairness. As the saying goes, there is no freedom of religion without freedom from religion.

Monday, 24 January, 2005  
Blogger Editor Choice said...

Many Thanks for your nice blog. I will come back.
I wanted just to mention an interesting site about Religions. With more than 500 pages, Religion News and Articles:Religion Universe: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism (Daoism) and many others

Tuesday, 11 October, 2005  

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