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Raymond Gravel defended the induction of abortion activist Henry Morgentaler to the Order of Canada in an opinion piece published in 2008, saying he ‘worked tirelessly to make abortion a legal medical act.’ (Ian Barrett/CP)
Raymond Gravel defended the induction of abortion activist Henry Morgentaler to the Order of Canada in an opinion piece published in 2008, saying he ‘worked tirelessly to make abortion a legal medical act.’ (Ian Barrett/CP)

Activist priest Raymond Gravel preached gospel of tolerance Add to ...

Raymond Gravel was an unorthodox Roman Catholic priest – and a one-time member of Parliament – who bluntly spoke out in favour of gay marriage, ordination of gay priests and a more tolerant attitude toward abortion.

His controversial comments sparked the occasional rebuke from his bishop, and the diocese of Joliette, Que., received a letter of reprimand from the Vatican, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.

But it was Father Gravel’s political life that finally forced the church to clamp down. He served one term as an MP before being told by church authorities to choose between politics and the priesthood. He chose the church.

The diocese in Joliette said Father Gravel passed away from lung cancer Monday morning at the Centre hospitalier régional de Lanaudière, northeast of Montreal. He was 61.

Tributes poured in throughout the day, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper offering his condolences to the priest’s family. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard praised Father Gravel as “a man of conviction who marked the lives of thousands of Quebeckers.”

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre called him “an inspiring human being of great dignity,” and ordered that the flag at City Hall be lowered to half-mast in honour of Father Gravel, who was chaplain for the firefighters of Montreal as well as other municipalities.

Father Gravel was the third Catholic priest to be elected to the House of Commons (Andrew Hogan and Bob Ogle were elected in 1974 and 1979, respectively, both as New Democrats).

In 1980, Pope John Paul II banned priests from political life, a move believed to have been aimed at revolutionary clerics in some parts of the world, in particular Latin America. Canon law specified in 1983 that “clerics are forbidden to assume public office which entails a participation of the exercise of civil power.” It said priests were “not to have an active part in political parties.”

However, the edict was open to interpretation by local bishops. According to an article in the Canadian publication Catholic Insight, Bishop Gilles Lussier of Joliette relaxed the rules when Father Gravel asked if he could run for the Bloc. Permission was granted as long as he did not support policies that went against church teachings.

But once elected, Father Gravel did just that, defending homosexuality and speaking out in support of abortion on a French-language television program. Citing as an example the conflict in Bosnia, he said he “defended women who got abortions in Bosnia.”

When abortion activist Henry Morgentaler was named to the Order of Canada in July, 2008, Father Gravel defended the move in a newspaper opinion piece: “Whether we like it or not, this doctor worked tirelessly to make abortion a legal medical act.” At the same time, he lashed out at the church’s views on birth control, saying: “By refusing the use of condoms to people in African countries, [the church] would have provoked the deaths of hundreds of thousand of men, women and children infected with HIV/AIDS.”

Father Gravel’s controversial views made him one of the best-known priests in the province, perhaps because they reflected the beliefs of secular Quebec. He once spelled out his views on abortion on Radio-Canada, saying: “I am pro-choice and there is not a bishop on Earth that will prevent me from receiving communion, not even the Pope.” Later he modified that stance, saying, “I am against abortion, but I am not in favour of the pro-life campaign that condemns all women who get an abortion.”

In February, 2006, Father Gravel was one of 19 priests who wrote a letter condemning the church’s views on sexuality. He was in favour of same-sex marriage and told a Quebec gay magazine, “I would say that 50 per cent of the priests in Quebec are gay.”

In April, 2008, he spoke to a gay group in Hull, Que. “If I can reconcile this community with the church, all the better, it is my goal, I do not want them to feel rejected [but] rather, loved,” he said in an interview with the newspaper Le Droit.

In time, such comments caught up with him and the Vatican overruled his local bishop and told Father Gravel he had to choose between political office and the priesthood. He did not run in the general election of 2008; he said his decision was due to a backlash in English Canada about his “misinterpreted” comments on abortion (the letter from the Vatican had cited complaints written in English from Canadian Catholics).

Father Gravel said he had no choice but to stay in the priesthood. “My first mission in life is to be a priest, not to be in politics,” he stressed.

Raymond Gravel was born on Nov. 4, 1952, in Saint-Damien, Que., north of Montreal. He had a troubled childhood and left home at 16. He started working as a male prostitute but gave that up after he was badly beaten by one of his customers and was hospitalized in intensive care.

After that, he worked as bartender and waiter in two gay bars while studying theology, and was ordained as a priest at the age of 30.

He worked for many years in the parish of St. Joachim de la Plaine, and was a member of the PQ who didn’t hide his political views. At some masses he wore a vestment with a cross on one side and fleur-de-lys on the other. He gained a kind of fame in the world outside the church when he did things such as write public letters criticizing the church’s denunciation of homosexual life.

When he left politics, Father Gravel taught Bible classes in the Joliette diocese and was chaplain to the Montreal Police Brotherhood and Laval firefighters.

But he maintained a high profile in Quebec; when Pope Benedict resigned from the papacy in February, 2013, the Journal de Montréal turned to Father Gravel for commentary. Once again, he made comments that appeared to be counter to the teachings of the church, this time about abortion.

“Take abortion as an example. There are more and more women making this choice. Instead of condemning this choice we have to show understanding. We have to live in their shoes to help them,” Father Gravel told the newspaper. He said the church in Quebec was much more liberal than the Vatican: “In Quebec we have an open church. What is annoying is to not have the endorsement of the authorities Church in Rome.”

Father Gravel continued to speak out on public policy and social issues until the end of his life. Although always a separatist, last fall he came out against the PQ proposal that would have seen provincial civil servants banned from wearing religious garb and symbols such as hijabs, kippas and crucifixes.

“Removing all the religious symbols is like forbidding people to express their faith,” he said. “I wear a crucifix but I don’t impose my religion on anyone.”

Father Gravel, who began smoking at age 12, had spoken publicly about his struggle with lung cancer for the past year. He told an interviewer in a Joliette hospital in June that he was afraid of suffering, but not of dying.

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