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Pope Benedict sparked a debate about the place of religious beliefs in Canadian politics yesterday, telling Ontario bishops Canada has excluded "God from the public sphere" with laws supporting same-sex marriage and abortion.

The pontiff told a group of seven visiting bishops in Vatican City that Canadian Catholic politicians are ignoring the values of their religion, yielding to "ephemeral social trends and the spurious demands of opinion polls."

"In the name of tolerance your country has had to endure the folly of the redefinition of spouse, and in the name of freedom of choice it is confronted with the daily destruction of unborn children," the Pope said.

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A representative with the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops who was travelling with the bishops in Italy said the group was busy with engagements and unable to comment immediately on the Pope's message.

Alfonse Ainsworth, general secretary of the organization, said he expects the bishops will take the Pope's words into consideration when planning their strategy for the next provincial and federal elections.

"I'm sure they'll be studying the comments and the context and making sure they follow through," he said.

The meeting was a routine one the Pope has with regional bishops every five years. The Pope met with bishops from Atlantic Canada in May, telling them Canada was "suffering from the pervasive effects of secularism" and pointed to "the plummeting birth rate" as proof.

But the pontiff's strong criticism yesterday reignited a debate about the separation of church and state in Canada. Gilles Marchildon, executive director of the gay-rights advocacy group Egale Canada, said politicians represent all Canadians of various faiths and should keep their personal beliefs out of the House of Commons.

"Because of that, politicians have a responsibility to not be proponents of a particular faith when making decisions that affect everyone," he said. "We don't have a state religion in Canada."

Just as government doesn't instruct the Catholic Church how to celebrate communion, the church shouldn't instruct politicians on who can get married, he added.

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"I'm surprised the Pope doesn't realize that gate can swing both ways."

But Joanne McGarry, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said the Pope has every right to instruct Catholics on how to live their lives.

"That's what popes have always done," she said.

Pat O'Brien, the former Liberal London-area MP who resigned over his party's stand on same-sex marriage, told CBC Newsworld there is no such thing as a separation between church and state.

"A morality of convenience is not much of a morality and if you're going to leave behind your Catholic Christian beliefs and principles because you walk into a legislative chamber, to me that would be a morality of convenience," said Mr. O'Brien, who is now part of Vote Marriage Canada.

"Politicians who say they are practising Catholics and practising Christians will hopefully very carefully consider the words of the Holy Father."

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Moira McQueen, professor of theology at the University of Toronto, said the Pope's comments were justified. Many outside the Catholic community feel the same-sex marriage debate was rushed through, Prof. McQueen said, and was driven more by political pressure than conscience.

"It was more a political push rather than a real need for the bulk of the population," said the professor, who is also director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute.

"Any Catholic politician who was moving along the lines of same-sex marriage and totally ignoring what Pope Benedict was saying, isn't really following their conscience from a Catholic perspective."

The Pope's message won't go unnoticed by the Catholic community, Prof. McQueen said, especially come election time.

"I think he'll have a fair amount of influence," she said.

Pope Benedict has made the defence of traditional family values a major goal of his papacy, speaking out often on the issue. During a trip to Spain in July, he challenged that country's Socialist government for instituting liberal reforms such as gay marriage and fast-track divorce.

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Same-sex marriage was recognized by Canada's Parliament last year, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said there will be a vote in the House of Commons this fall to determine whether the issue should be revisited.

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