CALGARY, Alberta — Canada's politicians have been warned: They can't be both Catholic and “pro-choice.”
Beginning with the publication Feb. 26 of an bylined article in the Calgary Sun, Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary has repeatedly accused Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Progressive Conservative leader (and former prime minister) Joe Clark of “scandalous behavior.”
Bishop Henry has also castigated these pro-abortion Catholics for “weakness in their moral fiber,” and threatened to ban Clark, a parishioner, from Calgary Catholic schools. The bishop wrote that “no Catholic can responsibly take a ‘pro-choice’ stand when the ‘choice’ in question involves the taking of innocent human life.”
In an interview with the Register, Bishop Henry explained, “The point of the intervention was to call some Catholic politicians to repent in this Lenten season.”
During an earlier radio interview, the bishop threatened “that should Joe Clark predecease me, he may not have the bishop burying him from the cathedral,” but he has for now ruled out excommunication, banishment from the sacraments.
Basilian Father Alphonse de Valk, editor of Toronto's Catholic Insight magazine, has called publicly for Health Minister Allan Rock, another pro-abortion Catholic, to be excommunicated. He told the Register, “The Catholic pro-life movement is becoming more and more impatient” with Catholic politicians who “deliberately and knowingly” deny Church teaching on the sanctity of human life.
Father de Valk explained that canon law states that all Catholics who participate directly in an abortion are excommunicated automatically. Others who participate less directly are condemned based on the extent to which they facilitate this grave sin. Rock, he said, “has reached the highest degree of material cooperation” with his current campaign to force four Canadian provinces to pay for abortions committed in private health clinics.
What Father de Valk referred to as “a hardening of resolve” follows the 2000 Canadian federal election, in which, for the first time, the leaders of the Liberal and Conservative Party leaders called themselves “pro-choice.” Both parties had been effectively pro-abortion for decades (it was a Catholic Liberal prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who legalized abortion in 1969) but had never dared previously to be so forthright.
Chrétien made it clear that his party's new position was aimed at gaining support at the expense of the Canadian Alliance, which takes no position on abortion but whose leader Stockwell Day is a pro-life evangelical Christian.
Speaking at a Catholic high school during the election, Chrétien said, “For me, I'm a Roman Catholic. Personally, I don't have to, you know, I'm not at the age any more to have my wife have an abortion, but the reality … is that it is the choice of not the husband to decide, in my judgment, it is the judgment of the woman according to the value that this person have.”
His statement was met with gasps, and for the second time that year Archbishop Marcel Gervais of Ottawa rebuked him publicly.
Throughout the campaign Clark insisted, “I am a Roman Catholic; I am pro-choice” and characterized the Canadian Alliance's policy of referendums on social issues like whether to criminalize abortion as a male plot to strip women of their alleged “right to choose.”
Spokesmen for Chrétien, Clark and Rock all refused comment on this issue. Bishop Henry has expressed his wish to speak personally to Clark, but he told the Register that Clark has yet to contact him.
Bishop Henry reported that messages to the diocese have been about “nine to one in favor” of his position, and letters in both Calgary newspapers have also been overwhelmingly supportive. He was the victim, however, of a savagely anti-Catholic editorial cartoon in the Calgary Herald: a drawing of a man holding an O Henry bar, saying, “Something new has been added to the political bar! Religious nuts! With a sprinkling of intolerance!!”
Bishop Henry commented, “I thought it was in poor taste, but I have a thick skin.”
The bishop has exhibited this thick skin previously, notably in a dispute with Canada's most powerful newspaper tycoon, Conrad Black, owner of the London Telegraph,Chicago Sun-Times and then-owner of the Calgary Herald. Bishop Henry took the side of labor in a strike against the Herald, and Black called him a “jumped-up little twerp” and a “prime candidate for an exorcism.”
As well, Bishop Henry has used his Calgary Sun column, where he first rebuked Chrétien and Clark, as a bully pulpit to inveigh against those he considers the enemies of social justice.
Calgary Catholic Carol Gregory, an anti-abortion activist for 20 years, told the Register she was thrilled by the bishop's intervention. Bishop Henry's relations with local pro-lifers had previously been strained, she said, and, “That's why I'm so happy that he has spoken out. It's the strongest statement I've heard any Canadian bishop make on this issue. I hope the tide is turning. Maybe other bishops will now start confronting their delinquent flocks.”
Father de Valk said that Bishop Henry's stance was evidence of a welcome change in the Canadian hierarchy to acknowledge that “abortion is not just one issue among social justice issues.” The recent decision by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and its foreign charity arm, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, to withdraw support from the pro-abortion World March of Women lends support to his assertion.
Pope John Paul II has tirelessly reminded Catholic politicians of their duty to the unborn, most recently in a Nov. 5 speech: “A law which does not respect the right to life — from conception to natural death — of every human being … is not a law in harmony with the divine plan. Consequently, Christian legislators may neither contribute to the formulation of such a law nor approve it in parliamentary assembly.”
The Pope's exhortations have been taken to heart by several American bishops. In 1998, for example, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., banned pro-abortion Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge from Catholic events in his diocese. Last year, a Catholic hospital in Bishop James Timlin's diocese of Scranton, Pa., disinvited Al Gore to speak at the hospital. Also last year, the late Bishop James T. McHugh of Rockville Centre, N.Y., issued a blanket ban on pro-abortion politicians speaking on diocesan property.
Kevin Michael Grace is based in Vancouver, British Columbia