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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 7 (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 7 (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Goldenberg

Trudeau’s pro-choice decree is democratic, not dictatorial Add to ...

Adam Goldenberg is a former Liberal speechwriter and a contributor to CBC News: The National.

Call it Justin Trudeau’s butterfly effect. His lips flutter, and a tidal wave of faux outrage follows.

To demonstrate, here’s Christian Riesbeck, the Roman Catholic bishop of Ottawa: “That is scandalous,” he said of Justin Trudeau’s decision to require Liberal candidates to back the party’s pro-choice position on reproductive rights. To make things right, the Bishop declared, Trudeau “would have to make a public retraction of his views.”

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How horrifying it would be if he did. It’s one thing for clergy to express their views on a policy issue, but it’s quite another for them to assert that their parishioners have no choice but to listen to them. Want to live in a country where legislators answer to clergy? Try Iran.

Riesbeck isn’t alone. In a statement earlier this month, Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast wrote that, “one may not dissent from [Catholicism’s] core teachings on life issues and be considered a Catholic in good standing.”

Trudeau was the target of the Archbishop’s ire, but not its intended audience; Prendergast’s political epistle was to be published in every church bulletin in his archdiocese. Its message is simple: according to the Church hierarchy, individual Catholics are required not just to accept, but also to vote for the Vatican’s position on abortion. According to the Church’s leaders, it’s not enough to believe that abortion is wrong as a matter of religious morality – Catholics must also demand legislation to limit a woman’s right to choose. On reproductive rights, according to Riesbeck, Prendergast, and other wannabe ayatollahs, there can be no separation between church and state.

What nonsense, and what gall. “What they’re saying is, ‘there’s no choice but pro-choice,’” declared Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton. “That’s a contradiction in itself.” That’s not true, unless you think that a politician’s choice to dissent from party policy is as grave as a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy. (It isn’t.) Still, the fallacy is less absurd than the hypocrisy; Archbishop Smith and his clerical bedfellows are shocked – shocked! – that Trudeau would force his candidates to support his party’s policy on abortion, but they apparently have no problem telling Catholics that they have no choice but to parrot the Church’s pro-life position, not just in the pews, but also at the ballot box.

Trudeau’s edict allows Catholic Liberal candidates to believe what they like about abortion as a spiritual matter, provided that they promise to vote the party line on abortion, as on every other core policy issue. Catholic leaders, by contrast, would require their flock to vote a different party line: Rome’s. They expect Catholic politicians to inscribe the Church’s doctrine into law – not just for themselves, but for everyone else. One of these two approaches is a threat to Canadians’ freedom of conscience. It isn’t Trudeau’s.

If, in the words of Edmonton’s archbishop, Trudeau’s pro-choice policy is “dictatorial,” then the Church’s anti-choice rule is plainly theocratic.

Catholic leaders aren’t alone in seeking to legislate dogma. Canadians of other faiths are treated to similar pronouncements from their own clergy – from the pulpit, they’re told that it’s not enough for them to believe that abortion is wrong; they must also seek to make it illegal. Such clerical commandments are problematic in a country governed by the rule of law, not the rule of God.

Canadians are free to make up their own minds about access to abortion on whatever terms they choose. If, for some, religious dogma is reason enough to oppose it, then so be it – but that’s a decision for individuals to make themselves, not for their priests or pastors to make for them. As policy rationales go, “God told me so” may be unsatisfying, but “the Archbishop told me so” is unnerving.

Trudeau’s pro-choice rule may make life difficult for candidates who disagree; they’ll now have to decide between voting the party line and running for a different party. Yet, Catholic leaders are forcing their flock to make a much starker decision – between voting the Church’s party line and no longer being, in Archishop Prendergast’s words, “a Catholic in good standing.” If you think those alternatives are equally severe, then you’re either putting too much stock in politics or not enough in religion.

Catholics are still free to believe what they want about abortion – or divorce, or contraception, or same-sex marriage. They’re also free to oppose any party’s policies on any of those issues. But, in politics, that’s where the freedom of religion ends; no one has a right to remain a party’s candidate while refusing to support its positions. Religious freedom doesn’t come with a veto.

Faith leaders are welcome to their own views on access to abortion, as they are on any other policy issue. When the previous Liberal government – led by Paul Martin, who, like Trudeau, is Catholic – moved to legalize same-sex marriage a decade ago, his Church was incensed. Its views were respectfully acknowledged, then effectively ignored, and rightly so. Earlier this month, when Pope Francis called for “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state” and “an unfailing commitment to solidarity” with the poor, Catholic Conservatives like Employment Minister Jason Kenney didn’t rush to rewrite the federal budget – nor should they have. Trudeau’s response to his critics of the cloth has been similarly nonchalant. Good.

In a pluralist society, we should always accept disagreements over policy, and we must always respect others’ beliefs. But that doesn’t mean we have to allow others to impose their religious views on the rest of us; respect for religion doesn’t mean that we can’t keep it in its place.

A healthy democracy can accommodate both religious objections to abortion and a woman’s right to choose. It’s the Vatican’s wannabe theocrats, not Justin Trudeau, who would force Canadians to decide between them.

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