Submission by Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on Bill C-23: Modernization of Benefits and Obligations

Wednesday, March 01 2000


The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) is the national association of Catholic Bishops. It was founded more than fifty-five years ago and includes bishops of the seventy-five Catholic dioceses across the nation who are charged with the pastoral care of approximately 12.5 million Catholics.

During the last few years, the CCCB has participated in the debate on same-sex benefits in various forums, including the Supreme Court of Canada as part of a multi-faith coalition in the Egan(1)case where the definition of spouse was in issue and before the House of Commons Committee on Bill C-33 about amending the Canadian Human Rights Act. The CCCB has also written numerous letters to the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers, and Parliamentary Committees in its own name or in collaboration with the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, of which the CCCB is a founding partner.

The various government initiatives and reactions to court judgments on this topic have illustrated how difficult it is becoming to have thoughtful and respectful conversations on sensitive social questions. Let us hope, in this year 2000, which Christians are celebrating as the Great Jubilee in the biblical tradition of renewal and reconciliation, that all people of good will can come together and be given the time to discuss this proposed legislation in a constructive manner.

The Principles of Church Teaching

In all of its previous interventions, the CCCB has looked at proposed legislation and court developments through the lens of the following principles of Church teaching:

The dignity of the human personCentral to Catholic teaching is respect for the dignity of every human being because everyone, without exception, is unique and created in the image and likeness of God.

Marriage as a social institution and a sacrament

We believe that marriage is an exclusive, permanent union between a man and a woman, a loving partnership open to the possibility of new life. It is both a sacrament and a vital social institution.

Marriage plays a pivotal role in the stability of the family and in its care and the nurturing of future generations. As Mr. Justice Gérard V. La Forest said in the Egan case:

Suffice it to say that marriage has from time immemorial been firmly grounded in our legal traditions, one that is itself a reflection of long standing philosophical and religious traditions. But its ultimate raison d’être transcends all of these and is firmly anchored in the biological and social realities that heterosexual couples have the unique ability to procreate, that most children are the product of these relationships, and that they are generally cared for and nurtured by those who live in that relationship.

Every civilization on earth has had its own institution, tradition and rituals of marriage. The public commitment of a man and a woman is universal. For the Church, marriage is also a sacred reality.

The Sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life.(2)

The Catholic Church has always taught that sexual relations are properly reserved for marriage between a man and a woman who are open to procreation. For this reason, we consider sexual relations outside of marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual, to be morally unacceptable.

Comments on Bill C-23

As bishops, it is not our role to examine in detail the changes that Bill C-23 proposes to make to sixty-eight separate pieces of legislation. We would, however, like to comment on the general objective enunciated by the Government which is to extend benefits and obligations to same-sex partners on the same basis as opposite-sex common-law couples.

The distinction between marriage and other relationshipsWe have consistently asked the Government to respond to the court challenges and social pressures to extend benefits in a way that protects the institution of marriage and the almost universal understanding of the term “spouse”. To the extent that Bill C-23 appears to have done this, we express our appreciation for having been heard along with many others for whom marriage and the terms associated with it have deep meaning and immense importance.

Married couples perform a role within society which is of service to all and is distinct from other forms of human relationships, however loving, intense or interdependent. A marriage between a man and a woman, while founded in their love for one another, contains an inherent likelihood of dependent children. A minority of couples, whether through infertility or personal decision, may not have children. But that does not alter the likelihood of dependent children arising from the biological givens of heterosexual marriage, givens which no shift in the realm of ideas or new technologies can change.

We strongly support maintaining the distinction between marriage and other relationships because of its proven contribution to the stability of the family and the future of society. We hope that the Government will find ways to affirm and recognize this essential role in substance as well as form. A good place to start might be by reaffirming in Bill C-23 the definition of marriage that was overwhelmingly supported in the House of Commons on June 8, 1999, in the following motion by a vote of 216-55:

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 that Parliament will take all necessary steps within the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada to preserve this definition of marriage in Canada.

The distinction between same-sex couples and other non-sexual relationshipsThe historical basis of benefits for heterosexual couples has been the reality that most children are born and nurtured in these family units. What was being supported was not the loving nature of the relationship or the sexual relationship per se but the fact that these couples are likely to have children upon whom the future of society rests.

Given that Bill C-23 does not extend benefits on the potential basis of there being children, and so would erase this important distinction between opposite-sex couples and same-sex partners, there now appears to be no principled basis for not extending benefits to others who also live in equally long-term and mutually dependent relationships, such as siblings, friends, relatives, adult child and parent, etc.


In conclusion, our general position on this Bill is as follows:

  1. We are grateful that the Government has responded to the strong and consistent voices which ask that the distinction between marriage (as well as terms associated with it such as spouse) and other relationships be maintained.
  2. The Government must find ways to strengthen and protect marriage which is an institution that is fundamental to the building up of civilization.
  3. Having abandoned the historical rationale for providing benefits to those unions that have the inherent capacity to procreate and thus contribute to the country’s future, the Government has no alternative but to include other relationships that are as strong and interdependent as those which have a sexual aspect.
  4. Given the importance of every child for the future of our society, the Government must assure that irrespective of the status of the child’s parents, the rights and needs of all children are advanced by appropriate Government policies and programs that are based on the best interests of the child.
  5. We assume that human rights law, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, will continue to protect freedom of religion and the preferential hiring rights of religious organizations and faith communities.

The issues in and around Bill C-23 have profound implications for our personal and social relationships, for our public and private institutions, and for our living together in a pluralistic society. We believe that our comments are a constructive contribution which we hope will be taken into account as the debate continues.

Presented on behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops by:

  • Most Reverend Brendan O’Brien, Bishop of Pembroke
    Co-Treasurer, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
  • Monsignor Peter Schonenbach, PH
    General Secretary, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops


1. Egan v Canada [1995] 2 S.C.R.513.

2. Catechism of the Catholic Church,No. 1661.