The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is upset with Calgary Bishop Fred Henry for saying Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's soul is in jeopardy because of a federal draft same-sex marriage bill.
"It's not the sort of language that the rest of the bishops would employ," said Monsignor Peter Schonenbach, the conference's general secretary Friday.
"My own stance on this and the stance of the bishops is that judgment is basically in God's hands and not in ours."
Even though the conference, which represents about 100 active bishops in Canada, does not entirely agree with Bishop Henry's statements, it does not have the authority to reprimand him.
"It's his prerogative, he's an independent bishop," Monsignor Schonenbach said from Ottawa. "But anything that doesn't represent the real overall picture is certainly not helpful."
The controversy started Wednesday when Bishop Henry said that Mr. Chrétien, a Catholic, could burn in hell for allowing same-sex marriages. He further elaborated at a press conference Thursday, saying: "I pray for the Prime Minister because I think his eternal salvation is in jeopardy."
Bishop Henry could not be reached for comment about Monsignor Schonenbach's statement but told CBC Newsworld he was unrepentant about his strong condemnation of the Liberal same-sex marriage bill.
"[There]is a sense of build-up on behalf of Catholic people who have been saying 'Bishop, when is someone going to say something to our Catholic politicians with respect to their responsibilities?'" Bishop Henry said in the TV interview.
"The whole process was accelerated by the release of the Vatican of these considerations of the obligations and duties of Catholic politicians with respect to same-sex marriage legislation."
Mr. Chrétien's Liberal government has said it will legislate same-sex marriages this fall but has referred a draft bill to the Supreme Court for a constitutional review. The bill would legally allow marriage between two people regardless of their gender.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Chrétien said the Prime Minister's primary responsibility is to the Canadian public, not his religious faith, and stressed that there must be a separation between the church and state.
However, some Liberal MPs say they intend to campaign against the legislation.
This is certainly not the first time that Bishop Henry has jumped into the political and social fire and railed against a government.
Soon after Bishop Henry moved to Calgary from Thunder Bay, Ont. in 1998, he slammed Premier Ralph Klein's government for expanding video lottery terminals, saying it exploited the weak, turning them into gambling junkies.
He has also accused Mr. Klein's Tories of short-changing students by improperly funding education.
Last April, he issued a memo to the diocese stating that lengthy personal eulogies at Catholic funerals are not acceptable.
"Quite frankly," said Monsignor Schonenbach, "Bishop Henry is known for using language that sometimes is a little bit different from what other bishops would use."
Willi Braun, a religion history professor at the University of Alberta, pointed out that the media often calls upon Bishop Henry when covering stories of political and social importance.
"I know it's very, very tempting to dial up a guy who is going to give you a juicy quote," Mr. Braun said. "The media ought to say that he is extreme in his views, and they do not represent the church as a whole."
Irving Hexham, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, said he was surprised at Bishop Henry's blunt statements on Mr. Chrétien. But he noted Bishop Henry's remarks reflect what the Catholic Church has been teaching for centuries.
"The Pope has done this on a number of occasions," he said.
"Henry is simply being honest and good for him. At least people know where he stands."