National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

There were many casualties in our recent federal election: truth, civility and reasoned public debate – to name only three.

The greatest wounds, however, appear to have been inflicted on the notion that people of faith can contribute — in a positive way — to political discourse.

Instead, we witnessed religious faith caricatured, maligned and misrepresented.  We hit a new low recently when Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, a practising Roman Catholic, was asked whether he believed that being gay was a sin.

For the record, the Catholic church doesn’t teach that “being gay” is a sin.  Sexual orientation is part of an individual’s identity and the church teaches that every human being is created in the image of God.

“That’s just semantics”, some will charge, pointing to the Catholic prohibition against same-sex sexual expression.

Hold that thought for a second.

Instead, take a step back and consider the broader issue.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Millions of Canadians believe that there is a transcendent power greater than themselves that gives their lives meaning and purpose.  For many, this belief is expressed through a particular religious denomination that has its own traditions, teachings and moral code.

Religious faith doesn’t end with your personal life. Catholics, for example, are called to engage with the wider world and build God’s kingdom on Earth.  Living out your faith means being concerned about social justice issues as well as our responsibility as stewards of creation.

This public expression of faith goes beyond individual action. It was Canada’s churches and other religious communities, for example, which fought against the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline; helped develop Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program; led Canadian opposition against Apartheid in South Africa as well as our involvement in the Iraq War.

I encountered many faith groups in the most recent federal election.  They were actively working for climate justice; better immigration and refugee policies; greater support for the poor; and Indigenous reconciliation.

Yes, people of faith sometimes advocate for laws to restrict certain activities. At least from a Catholic perspective, these calls always need to be balanced against respect for personal freedom and the right of all individuals to act according to their own conscience — cornerstones of Catholic teaching.

It is only when the well-being of others or the common good is in danger that direct action may be necessary.

As a practicing Catholic who spent many years in politics, I know first-hand about straddling this tension between personal freedom, conscience rights and the common good.  All Catholic politicians have to identify when action is necessary, and when freedom of choice needs to prevail.

Which brings us back to the church’s teaching that same-sex sexual acts are sinful.  The church teaches that sexual relations should be restricted to marriage between a man and a woman. In other words, sexual activity between any unmarried individuals, as well as adultery, is also seen as sinful.

The church also recognizes the importance of personal conscience and freedom in these matters, which is why you would be hard pressed to find a church leader calling for the state to police the bedrooms of our nation.

In fact, when it comes to sex and politics these days, the only real question is whether our political leaders will protect the rights of all Canadians, regardless of their sexual orientation or activities.

So, what if we dropped the asinine questions about sex and sinfulness and instead focused on the possibility that faith might bring something positive to the table?

What if we acknowledged that our society — with its loneliness, consumerism and massive inequality — is not perfect, and expressed a willingness to consider the ideas of Canada’s religious communities?

All our major party leaders are self-proclaimed people of faith.  What if we asked them how their faith contributed to their work? How does it guide their decision-making or inspire them to change the world?

We desperately need good people in politics these days and we enter dangerous territory when we start disqualifying people of faith from their ranks.

If you are looking for a gotcha moment, why not ask some of our Catholic politicians how their support for pipelines aligns with the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Martin Luther University College, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at jmilloy@luther.wlu.ca or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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