Michael Valpy: Morgentaler's other legacy — the wall between church and state

Moral issues will never fully go away, Michael Valpy writes. But after Henry Morgentaler, organized religion's voice is no longer the thundering agency of What Must Be Done, but a sentiment relegated largely to the sidelines of mainstream Canadian culture.

Has Canada entered the European-style, spiritual cool zone, where religion's voice is just one among many?

Henry Morgentaler has his Order of Canada pinned on his chest by Governor General Michaelle Jean in 2008. The state recognized his accomplishments. (Canadian Press)

Moral issues do not go away. Supreme Court decisions and acts of Parliament aside, Canadians will continue debating the morality of abortion for as long as there are Canadians. Consensus is not possible.

Yet cemented in the legacy of Dr. Henry Morgentaler's life and mission lies one unequivocal victory: Along the path of his campaign to legalize abortion and give women the right to decide what happens to their bodies, the door was firmly shut on institutional religion's engagement in the public life of the nation.

Religion's voice became, no longer the thundering agency of What Must Be Done, but a sentiment relegated to the sidelines of mainstream Canadian culture.

Between Pierre Trudeau's partial de-criminalization of abortion in 1969 (in the same piece of legislation that completely de-criminalized homosexuality and contraception) and the Supreme Court's ruling in 1988 declaring any criminalization of abortion to be unconstitutional, it became clear that absolutist teachings from the realm of the sacred would no longer be the determining factor in public morality and the nation's public life.

And, indeed, that Canadians would support the courts setting aside democratically enacted moral legislation that was deemed unwelcome.

In all the tens of thousands of words devoted these past days to Morgentaler's life and achievements, barely a nod has been directed at his clerical opponents — a sentence here, a phrase there, a brief notation that Montreal's Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte sent back his Order of Canada insignia in 2008 when Morgentaler was awarded his.

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Think about this. What could have been a more definitive rejection of the church's teaching than the Governor General presenting Morgentaler with the state's highest honour?

His abortion campaign brought on conservative Christianity's last great charge to the ramparts, and it failed. By comparison, the subsequent campaign against same-sex marriage was a mere shadow.

To reference this is not to ridicule or belittle the church, merely to note Canadians' journey into a European-style spiritual cool zone, and the long, building resistance to clericalism on both sides of the language divide.

A long rebellion

In Quebec, the tendrils of resistance to the political and social dominance of the Roman Catholic Church appeared as early as the Patriote Rebellion of 1837.

In the federal election of 1896, Quebec's Catholic bishops declared that voting for Wilfrid Laurier's federal Liberals would be "sinning in a grave manner," but their declamations went almost totally unheeded. Laurier's Liberals won 49 of 65 seats in the province, and by the time of Quebec's Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, rejection of the church had thickened from seedlings to mighty oaks.

Ontario anti-clericalism was born of the political Reform Movement's opposition in the early 19th century to Anglican establishmentarianism (the government endorsement of the Anglican Church as the state religion), and the subsequent, successful political campaigns against clergy privileges and Anglican control over the University of Toronto.

It gained ground as Anglican, Catholic and Protestant churches were left irredeemably stained by their abusive exercise of delegated state power in their operation of residential schools for aboriginal children from the mid-19th century to the late 20th century.

And while the Supreme Court has upheld Section 93 of the Constitution Act 1867, as a kind of hiccup of history that must be lived with, thus validating the existence of publicly supported Roman Catholic schools, Catholic school boards have more recently been barred from discriminating against homosexual students and ordered to permit so-called gay-straight alliance clubs in their schools despite church teaching that homosexuality is "disordered."

The Order of Canada award was not without controversy. But the massive protests that dominated the abortion debate in the 1970s and '80s are nowhere as evident. (Canadian Press)

Moreover, Ontarians have rejected any political proposal that public funding of religious schools be expanded.

And threats by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church — Canada's largest religious institution — to deny sacraments to prime ministers (with the exception of Kim Campbell, in office only four months, Stephen Harper is the first non-Catholic prime minister since 1968) who have supported abortion and same-sex marriage have been vociferously criticized in the media and never carried out.

The point here is that, since the Morgentaler decision in 1988, Christian and other faith groups have periodically tried to push their way into the public sphere but Canadians won't have it.

'Sovereign reverence'

Unlike the U.S., Australia and a number of other countries, Canada has no constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.

No Canadian political leader ever wrote, as Thomas Jefferson did: "Believing … that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

Nonetheless, when it comes to the nation's public life, most Canadians — whether of some faith or no faith — seem to have accepted the privatization of piety.

Or as Solange Lefebvre, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of Montreal, told a symposium on Pierre Trudeau's spiritual life in 2003, "To be Christian in Canada is to be discreet."

It is why Catholic prime ministers like Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin kept their Catholicism to themselves and governed for the whole poly-faith, poly-ethnic country.

And it is a component of our success as a multicultural society. The rules we submit ourselves to come from law and reason, not from religious faith.

If they coincide, that's good; if they don't, as Jefferson said, the government must contemplate with sovereign reverence the desires of the whole Canadian people.