Individually, religion and sexuality are two topics that rarely fail to raise an emotional response from Canadians. The combination of the two takes the conversation to a new level, as the Canadian Conference of Bishops acknowledged recently when it noted the "confusion and anger … among many of the faithful" after the former bishop of Antigonish, N.S., pleaded guilty to importing child pornography. It was a reminder of a long and conflicted relationship that Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss.
Dr. Michael W. Higgins is a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently the vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam is an associate professor of economics at Mount Royal University. He is Hindu, originally from Sri Lanka, and has been in Canada since 1984. He has served as president of the Calgary Multicultural Centre and the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary, and has arranged multifaith panels to talk about religion to students in the residences at Mount Royal.
Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master's degree in physics and a Ph.D in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
James Loewen is an active member of his Mennonite Brethren church and parent of four children. He advocates for restorative justice to federal government and in churches, is a past president of the Church Council on Justice and Corrections and has organized and facilitated dialogues across Canada and internationally.
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.
Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Listen Up TV on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time.
Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe and Mail's online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.
Guy Nicholson: Thanks for taking the time to join us. Panelists, it's been nearly 50 years since sexual liberation in the West. How would you characterize the modern connection between faith and sexuality in this country?
Michael Higgins: In the context of Catholic teaching, I would think it safe to say that the connection is contorted, controverted and often confusing. There is a teaching on the body, on the role and meaning of sexuality, and on the liberating dimensions of a truly "enfleshed" existence that is healthy, scriptural, humanistic and deeply Catholic, but more often than not this runs counter to the experience and perception of most Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The relationship of faith to sexuality is seen primarily as antagonistic and fearful, a false and dangerous dualism that has been a constant in Christian thinking from the outset. This, in turn, contributes to a widening gap between spirituality and sexuality and in the worst-case scenario, being spiritual is opposed to being sexual. But we are "graced" sexual beings and our spirituality is neither foreign to nor in opposition to a healthy and integrated life of faith.
Howard Voss-Altman: Our movement - Reform Judaism - continues to wrestle with the tension between tradition and modernity. We recognize changing attitudes and customs, but continue to promote healthy, loving, monogamous sexual relationships between consenting adults. We do not distinguish between same-sex and heterosexual relationships, and believe that sexual intimacy is one of God's most profound and generous gifts to humanity.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam: According to Hindu doctrine, a human being has four objectives in this world: One is Kama, the pursuit of pleasure of different types, sexual pleasure being one of them. Sexual pleasure is neither glorified nor abhorred. It is considered as essential for procreation and for a satisfactory life. The other three are Artha (pursuit of wealth), Dharma (following the righteous path) and Moksh (seeking liberation). Hence, sexuality is an integral part of Hindu faith.