Message of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops






The Catholic Bishops of Canada address this message on marriage to the faithful of their communities, yet also in the hope that these reflections will be widely heard by all who are participating in the current debate.


Many voices have made themselves heard since 17 July 2003, when the federal government referred to the Supreme Court of Canada its draft legislation to redefine marriage, for civil purposes, as “the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others”. This proposal has resulted in unprecedented controversy as it concerns a fundamental social and religious institution to which people have profound attachment.


I – Marriage: A Human Institution


A Reality Embedded in Human Nature


Marriage is a human reality, a natural institution that precedes all social, legal and religious systems. Marriage has existed since time immemorial. “Marriage predates our present government or any other and predates, as well, the founding of the Church. Marriage is not the creature of the State or Church, and neither a government nor the Church has authority to change its nature.”[1] This form of life for couples has always been valued and protected as an institution because of its unique character, its way of ordering human relationships, and its procreative potential.


Contribution to the Common Good


Marriage between a woman and a man constitutes a unique good for all society. It has a fundamental and irreplaceable role in building societies and civilizations. The social value of marriage comes from its role as a stabilizing force for the family, which in turn is the basic unit of society. The conjugal partnership of a man and a woman has always been considered to be the basis of the family, providing a stable and positive environment in which to care for children and so educate future generations. The family is at the heart of the social bonds that unite one generation with the next, and it is within the family that tomorrow’s society learns how to love and relate to others, as eloquently indicated by the statistics from the last Census.[2]

A Specific Commitment


In marriage, what is socially and legally recognized is not only a personal commitment, but also a social commitment: to contribute to the future of society by having and raising children. It is true that procreation is not the only goal of marriage, but it is certainly a key component.


Laws must be developed not only according to their impact on individuals, but also according to their impact on the social fabric. It is important, for the stability of the family and indeed for the stability of all society, to strengthen the institution of marriage. The State has a demonstrably genuine justification in affording recognition, preference, and precedence to the nature and character of the core social and legal arrangement by which society endures.[3]


Since the very beginnings of this debate, we have acknowledged there is a desire to give formal protection to other forms of adult personal relationships which also involve commitment, mutual care, and emotional and financial interdependence. We remain convinced solutions can be found without proceeding to a radical redefinition of marriage.


Respecting Differences


Invoking the principles of equity, equality, autonomy and freedom of choice, the government in its draft legislation proposes to remove the distinctions between heterosexual spouses and same-sex partners in order to give the latter access to normative marital status. However, the State must not confuse equality with uniformity by simply substituting one for the other. Non-discrimination does not require uniformity; it requires respect for diversity and differences. Society should value diversity. In the current context, refusing to establish the necessary distinctions leads to confusion and to the devaluing of diversity. It is not discriminatory to treat different realities differently.


Respecting the Interplay between Faith and Politics


There has been a vigorous and interesting debate in the media about the relationship between faith and politics. This is not solely a Catholic or even a religious issue but one that applies universally, since everyone has an overall sense of fundamental values and beliefs. For some people, this is informed largely by religious convictions; for others, it is based on philosophical principles; and for yet others, it involves what are called secular values. The Catholic Church does not draw a rigid line between faith and life. On the contrary, it expects its members, whatever their vocation, profession or occupation, to incarnate their faith in everyday life.


Whatever the issue, be it politics, the economy, military intervention or marriage, one should assume that most politicians will bring their fundamental values to the discussion and form their consciences accordingly. What the Church asks of Catholic politicians, and indeed of every Catholic, is to develop their conscience through prayer, meditation, careful reading of Scripture and respectful listening to the teaching of the Church, in order to heed that “objective moral law, which as the ‘natural law’ written in the human heart, is the obligatory point of reference for civil law itself.”[4]


Far from taking away the freedom of the Catholic politician, the Church recognizes it, putting the personal responsibility on the individual politician to discern on the basis of a well-formed conscience the best possible way to achieve the common good. All politicians are first and foremost accountable to their conscience, and then to their constituents.


Respecting Freedom of Religion


Much has been made of the fact that the draft bill on marriage which has been referred to the Supreme Court of Canada states in its second clause that “Nothing in this Act affects the freedom of officials of religious groups to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.” While the intention is appreciated, the fact remains that freedom of religion is already guaranteed in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The proposed clause adds nothing further.


Moreover, while supporters of the bill constantly reiterate that religious officials will not have to perform marriages that may be contrary to their beliefs, their argument misses the point on why Catholic religious leaders are participating in this debate. Clearly, marriage as one of the seven sacraments of the Church has important religious meaning. But it also has enormous social importance and significance because of its pivotal role in the procreation of children and the nurturing of future generations. Likewise, the anthropological, personal, religious and social dimensions of marriage are deeply rooted in history and culture.


The Catholic Bishops of Canada are participating in this debate and encouraging lay people, especially those who are married, to do so as well, not just because we are concerned about the freedom of clergy to celebrate the sacrament of marriage, but especially because we believe that marriage between a man and a woman benefits society and serves the common good which all Catholics are called to promote.    


II – Marriage in the Light of Faith and the Catholic Tradition


Made in God’s Image


The biblical text on the creation of the world in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis uses poetic imagery to convey fundamental truths about humanity. Two major points can be taken from this text which offer a profound understanding of the conjugal state. First, God gives human beings freedom, fertility, power, and the stewardship of all the earth and everything that inhabits it. Secondly, human beings are created in God’s image: God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them (Genesis 1.27). This is the wellspring of the dignity, meaning and life of the human being.


The image of God is manifested in both a personal and a conjugal way. In Genesis 1.31, this image of God is the pinnacle of creation which leads to its fullness: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. The image and likeness of God is not only in the very nature of the couple, but also in their power to give life through procreation.


The Sacrament of Marriage


In the eyes of the Catholic Church, marriage takes on a primary importance because Christ elevated it to the dignity of a sacrament. Even if the love between a man and a woman is imperfect, it is always called to manifest in a tangible way what Jesus revealed in abundance: the irrevocable love of God that is forever linked to our humanity…. Married couples take part in this mystery. They become living signs of it.[5] The sacrament of marriage is a sign of the union between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.31-32). As the icon of God’s love, the sacrament of marriage is also the icon of human dignity and greatness. The key image of creation is reflected in the richness of the masculine and feminine dimensions of the heterosexual couple. The fact that human beings are created female and male, in God’s image, and that procreative power flows from their union are two fundamental aspects of marriage.


This social and conjugal unit – by its binding love, by its inherent ability to bear children, and by the ensuing responsibility of father and mother to care for their children – not only enriches society but is its very cornerstone. For Christians, marriage marks a new page in the sacred story that began at baptism. It is a new moment in salvation history when the couple, forming a community of life and love, becomes a sign of Christ’s love for his Church. The marriage bond is thus a covenant to be lived, an unconditional promise between two people that also involves the community.


Looming Problems


For the first time in its history, Canada is faced with a proposal that it accept two conflicting definitions of marriage, one that would be civilly valid and another that would be religiously valid, at least for most faith groups. The two definitions are inherently contradictory. Society needs to think long and deeply before going down this unknown and troubling road.


Conclusion: Marriage – The Only Viable Approach


The marriage of a man and a woman is not just one form of association or institutional model among others. It is the institution on which society is founded. The relationship created by marriage between a woman and a man is a fundamental human reality which is at the basis of the social community.


Marriage needs to be preserved as an institution uniting two members of the opposite sex. For the common good of society, it must be protected. Together with so many other Canadians, as Catholic Bishops we call on the State to protect and support marriage as the union of a woman and a man, in accordance with both its institutional nature and its foundational role for the family. We reject the attempt of the State to reduce all intimate personal relationships to the same level, leading to the disappearance of the civil institution of marriage as understood in all human societies since time immemorial. Because of the recognized contributions that the institution of marriage brings to the stability of the family and to the future of society, legislators have the duty of preserving the distinction between marriage and other forms of relationships involving two persons.


The Catholic Bishops of Canada call for the definition of marriage to remain intact: the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.[6] We ask all those who believe that marriage is the legal union between a woman and a man to the exclusion of any other person to assume their responsibilities as citizens and to indicate to their political representatives, in a spirit of love and deep respect for all people, their firm opposition to a redefinition of marriage that includes same-sex partners. Such a fundamental change, we are profoundly convinced, will have a serious impact on society.



10 September 2003



Most Reverend Jacques Berthelet, C.S.V.

Bishop of Saint-Jean-Longueuil

President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops


Together with the other members of the Permanent Council of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops:


–Most Reverend Brendan O’Brien, Vice President, Archbishop of St. John’s

–Most Reverend André Gaumond, Co-Treasurer, Archbishop of Sherbrooke

–Most Reverend Anthony Tonnos, Co-Treasurer, Bishop of Hamilton

–His Eminence Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte, Archbishop of Montreal

–His Eminence Aloysius Cardinal M. Ambrozic, Archbishop of Toronto

–Most Reverend Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec and Primate of Canada

–Most Reverend Michael Bzdel, C.Ss.R., Archeparch of Winnipeg and Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholics of Canada

–Most Reverend Roger Ébacher, Archbishop of Gatineau-Hull

–Most Reverend Terrence Prendergast, S.J., Archbishop of Halifax and Apostolic Administrator of Yarmouth

–Most Reverend Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Edmonton

–Most Reverend V. James Weisgerber, Archbishop of Winnipeg

–Most Reverend Frederick Henry, Bishop of Calgary

–Most Reverend Clément Fecteau, Bishop of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière

–Most Reverend Paul Marchand, S.M.M., Bishop of Timmins

–Most Reverend Paul-André Durocher, Bishop of Alexandria-Cornwall




[1] Letter by Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., Archbishop of Chicago, issued Pentecost 2001.


[2] The results of the 2001 Census show that of the 8.4 million families in Canada, 5.9 million (70%) are headed by married couples, 1.3 million (16%) are headed by single parents, 1.2 million (14%) by common-law partners, and 34,200 (0.5%) by same-sex partners. The Census also shows that 68% of children ages 0 to 14 live with their married parents, 13% live with common-law parents, and 19% do not live with both parents. Furthermore, “The proportion of married-couple families was 70% in 2001…. Still, while younger Canadian men and women are more likely to start their conjugal life through a common-law relationship … most will eventually marry (roughly 75%) if trends observed in 2001 were to continue.” Statistics Canada, Analysis of the 2001 Census Data, “Profile of Canadian families and households: Diversification continues,” 22 October 2002, pp. 3-4, 7. Also cited in Catholic Organization for Life and Family, “Backgrounder: Recent statistics about marriage and other unions”, March 2003.


[3] Mr. Justice Ian Pitfield, in a decision of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, October 2001, expressed this opinion regarding the social dimension of marriage.


[4] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, 1995, No. 70.


[5] Assembly of Quebec Bishops, Interdiocesan working paper, 2000, p. 4. Translation.


[6] The House of Commons on 9 June 1999 agreed with this traditional and universal definition of marriage in approving the following resolution by a vote of 216 to 55: “That, in the opinion of this House, it is necessary, in light of public debate around recent court decisions, to state that marriage is and should remain the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others, and Parliament will take all necessary steps within the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada to preserve this definition of marriage in Canada.”


Since then, the Parliament of Canada has reaffirmed the definition of marriage as the legal union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others in the following statutes:


         The Public Sector Pension Investment Board Act, 1999 (Bill C-78);

         The Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act, 2000 (Bill C-23), which according to the Department of Justice was amended at the time specifically in order to “confirm the Government of Canada’s commitment to the institution of marriage by reaffirming that nothing in the legislation affects the meaning of marriage, which remains ‘the lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others’”;

         The Federal Law–Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1, 2001 (Bill S-4).