VANCOUVER — When Vancouver's Archbishop Adam Exner last month cancelled a financial-education program that a local credit union ran in four of his diocese's private parochial schools, he had no intention of touching off a firestorm that included threats against his life.

“I tried to do it quietly,” he said. “I sent a letter to the schools and the credit union saying the program would end. I didn't call the media or make an announcement.”

But on Sept. 24, the Vancouver Sun published the story, and the response was extraordinary. The newspaper was flooded with letters, some calling the archbishop a fascist, a hatemonger and a bigot. Protesters staged noisy demonstrations outside his residence at night, and he began receiving death threats that were serious enough to alarm city police.

The program he canceled was designed to teach elementary-school students the virtues of thrift, the rewards of saving, and the practical details of opening a bank account. But the heart of the dispute has little to do with money and everything to do with the debate over same-sex marriage.

The credit union that ran the school program was Van City, a major financial institution that recently began making bold efforts to woo clients from Vancouver's homosexual community. Advertisements stressing its sympathy for homosexuals began appearing in newspapers and on billboards, with one showing two young men sitting cheek-to-cheek and captioned, “I want to bank with people who value all partnerships.”

Archbishop Exner concluded the ads required a response. The credit union, he said, was becoming too closely identified with homosexual causes and the movement to legalize same-sex marriage. “It wasn't appropriate that it should be identified with Catholic schools,” he said.

And so he quietly removed the association by sending a four-page letter to the four school administrators carefully explaining his reasons.

The letter, posted at the arch-diocesan Web site, cites the withdrawal of archdioce-san support for the United Way and the Vatican's withdrawal of support for UNICEF as recent examples of the Church distancing itself from organizations that engage in morally unacceptable actions.

Proclaiming the Gospel

In an opinion piece published Oct. 1 in the Vancouver Sun, the archbishop explained he had no intention of offending homosexuals.

“I believe that all people, homosexuals included, have a right to hear the Gospel taught without compromise,” he wrote. “Many homosexuals might have no interest in the path the Church shows them. However, they are entitled to know it, and I am obliged — and privileged — to teach it."

Vancouver lawyer Barbara Findlay, a lesbian who has litigated a number of high-profile homosexual-rights cases, believes such actions violate the proper separation of church and state. In an article five years ago, she wrote: “The legal struggle for queer rights will one day be a showdown between freedom of religion and sexual orientation.”

“I still believe that,” she told the Register. “The opposition to gay rights has crystallized around the issue of same-sex marriage, and leading that opposition are religious groups, particularly the Catholic Church.”

Findlay said Canadians see that as a threat. “There is a strong feeling,” she said, “that what religious groups should do — and only do — is express their views, and not enact those views in the public square.”

But Archbishop Exner points out that it's common practice for all sorts of organizations to sever relations with business organizations on matters of principle. “But when the Church does it, it touches of this powder keg,” he said.

Marginalizing Religion?

Sean Murphy, director of the Catholic Civil Rights League's western Canadian region, said the concerted response to the archbishop's action shows how hard the homosexual-rights movement is working to marginalize religious opposition. He worries that the Church could be prosecuted under Canada's hate-crimes legislation if a pending bill to add homosexuals to the list of protected groups is passed by Parliament.

“That bill is consistent,” Murphy said, “with the determined effort to silence all opposition to homosexual conduct — or, at least, to confine it to religious ghettos in home and places of worship.”

Same-sex marriage is already legal in British Columbia and Ontario. The federal government has proposed a bill allowing same-sex marriage, and the Supreme Court of Canada is expected to rule by spring on whether the legislation is constitutional.

But if the ruling Liberals thought they were going to slide their project past Parliament that easily, they were wrong. Current polls show the country evenly split on the issue, and when the conservative Canadian Alliance Party introduced a motion to uphold the traditional definition of marriage, it was defeated by just five votes, thanks to the support of 53 Liberal Members who broke ranks to vote with the Alliance.

Canada's bishops have also become much more vocal in instructing Catholic politicians of their responsibility to uphold traditional marriage, galvanized in part by the recent Vatican statement, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.

The document, released July 31 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, states that all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, and stresses that “Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way, in keeping with their responsibility as politicians” (No. 10).

Early last month, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement urging all Canadians “who believe that marriage is the legal union between a woman and a man to exclusion of any other person to assume their responsibilities as citizens and to indicate to their political representatives, in a spirit of deep respect for all people, their firm opposition to a redefinition of marriage that includes same-sex partners.”

Bishop Frederick Henry of Calgary even warned that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who is Catholic, was putting his soul atrisk by moving to legalizing same-sex marriages.

Clash of Visions

Daniel Cere, the director of the Montreal-based Institute for the Study of Marriage Law and Culture, says this growing opposition marks an important shift in the debate. It's no longer a matter of being simply for or against homosexual marriage, he said, but a clash between two visions of marriage: the heterosexual, procre-ative vision to which many Canadians remain deeply committed, and a “couple-centered vision” promulgated primarily by the courts.

Despite the recent gains by homosexual activists, Cere believes the fight is far from over. He said a solid 40% of Canadians adamantly oppose same sex marriage, whereas only a small slice of the population are passionately committed to it as a civil-right issue.

Cere suggests that a victory for the traditional understanding of marriage depends on winning over the uncommitted remainder, who otherwise might tilt toward the pro-homosexual position.

Said Cere: “Between them is a soft core who are uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage, but are ready to be nudged toward it in the name of fairness and equity.”

Paul Waters is based in Montreal.