Okay, this isn’t strictly an Alberta news item. But, at about the time I began this series on the Alberta election (see here and here for previous installments), I heard that a Catholic bishop in Ottawa is refusing communion to politicians who support abortion rights.
It’s not the first time or place this has happened: it has come up recently in Scotland, Wales, the US, and probably many other places as well. Sanctions don’t stop at refusing communion – excommunication is also on the table according to some bishops. (Note that not all Catholics think this is an appropriate action for the church to take.)
I am not here to discuss arguments for or against abortion rights (not today anyway). What I would like to explore is the implications of such pressure for democratic government.
On a personal level, first of all, let me say that if I have reason to believe that a candidate will let any particular interest group dictate their actions when in power (rather than, say, the will of us voters), then they have already lost my vote. I hate the idea of voting against someone because of their religion, but if a candidate declares a firm devotion to the Catholic church, and the church orders all its members to toe the doctrinal line or else, then I have no hesitation in deciding against voting for that candidate.
So much for the personal side of things. What about the public interest?
There are regular scandals over money changing hands for political motives. Why are such actions a bad thing? Because they represent an individual, company, or group trying to coerce a politician to act in a way that may not reflect the democratic will of their constituents. It undermines democracy.
As I recently wrote, I think the appropriate status of religious groups in secular government is essentially that of interest groups. And what we have here is prominent members of the Catholic interest group putting as much pressure as they possibly can on elected officials to follow the church over the constituents.
So, are these bishops any better than business men trying to bribe (or blackmail) politicians to vote a particular way? If so, how? What is so special about religious interest groups that they don’t have to live up to the same ethical standards as we hold corporate businesspeople to?
At the least, I think these bishops’ declarations should make people think very carefully before electing Catholics to public office. At best, I think the Catholic church should be severely chastised for trying to thwart the democratic process in this way.
Disclaimer (in case someone in the audience is inclined to misinterpret me):
I assert the right of elected officials to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose. I assert the right of religious officials to express their beliefs – including the real-world implications of their beliefs – as freely as anyone else. I assert the right of everyone to take a position on abortion rights and to act on that position, whether it is in the form of personal choice, protest, or an elected official voting as they choose on legislation.
The only problem I see here for democracy is that an interest group – the Catholic church – is putting inappropriate, excessive pressure on elected officials to govern in a particular way.
Am I over-reacting? Do you think my statements amount to religious discrimination? Please let me know.