Speaking Notes of Archbishop Brendan M. O'Brien, President, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

Sunday, 15 February 2004
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With reference to no. 46 of Ecclesia in America: What are the “forces [that] are endangering the solidarity of the institution of the family in the different regions of America?”

I would first like to thank the organizers of this important meeting on the family in America, and particularly the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops which has welcomed us so warmly to San Antonio. 

In Canada, building a strong union and a loving family is still an ideal for the majority of young adults, perhaps because of the example of enduring couples who witness to the possibility of a happy married life. Happy families are also an encouragement in that they prove the importance and impact of self-giving and unconditional love.

There is much we can celebrate about the family in Canada. Parents who transmit to their children fundamental values so they will develop their full human potential. Families who build a life together in which each member feels responsible for the others and shares their joys and sorrows. Parents who witness to their faith in all aspects of their lives, be it with friends or colleagues. Families who are involved in their parishes and communities. The increasing respect for the equality between men and women. However, the focus of my talk is about the particular challenges the Canadian family faces today.

Canadian families see their unity, solidarity and survival threatened in ways that are not always evident to the primary players. Some of these pressures compromise the very future of this institution that has been desired by God since the beginning.

Families grow or change with the rhythm of evolution and social disruption. As society’s basic unit, families are subject to all the cultural forces, events and phenomena that mark the life of a country. Even though the federal and provincial governments in Canada state that they want to help the family, and even establish some family policies, there is still much to be done in this area.

In our overly sexualized society, the family and life in general are often scorned as much by laws as by individual behaviour. Materialism and individualism, mixed with a false conception of freedom and the relentless pursuit of personal and sexual pleasure, push many Canadians toward extravagant consumption and the seeking of comfort at any price. Many flout what is essential. Many have lost respect for life and human dignity as well as a sense of the meaning of life.

Today, many social and moral factors threaten the integrity of the family. We will examine some of the factors that confront couples who rise to the challenge of giving life to and educating children. Let us first look at the results of the 2001 Census from Statistics Canada so we can consider the demographics of Canadian families.

Portrait of Canadian families

The description of Canadian families and households offered by the 2001 Census says quite a bit about the state of the basic unit of Canadian society. Despite much negative news about marriage, it still remains the number-one choice for most couples. Therefore, 70 percent of families are made up of married couples, 16 percent are headed by single parents, and 14 percent by common-law couples. Out of all Canadian households, only half a percent are made up of same-sex partners. When a young man and a young woman decide to make a commitment, they often start out by living together, but 75 percent of these couples eventually marry.

In this context, it is interesting to note that 68 percent of children, ages 0 to 14 years, live with their married parents, while 13 percent live with common-law parents. The remaining 19 percent live with one parent or the other. These figures give a glimpse of one of the dangers Canadian families face. Each year separation and divorce cause extensive damage with serious consequences for individuals, families and society as a whole. In 2000 there were 71,144 divorces compared to 157,395 marriages. In addition, the proportion of marriages expected to end in divorce by the 30th wedding anniversary was 37.7 percent

If one still needed convincing about the importance of marriage for children, it is found in the national survey on children and youth conducted in 1999. According to the results of this survey, 13.6 percent of children born of married parents who did not live together before the marriage see their parents split up. It is a much more serious picture for children of common-law parents, as 63.1 percent of them will live through the break-up of their family. As for children born of married parents who first lived common-law, they form an intermediary category: about 25 percent of them will experience family breakdown.

Demographic free-fall

An interesting phenomenon has been noted in Canada over the last few months: sociologists, demographers, economists, politicians, psychologists and university researchers are seriously questioning themselves about the demographic future of the country.

As in almost all other Western nations, Canada’s population is aging. The number of live births is no longer high enough to ensure a renewal of the population. From 1970 to 1993, the fertility rate of Canadians dropped from 2.3 live births to 1.7. This means our country must look toward immigration to maintain a reasonable demographic level and avoid economic collapse.

The concern about the decrease in birth rate is so acute that last December, two important players in the Canadian media, the French-language television network Radio-Canada, and the daily French-language newspaper La Presse, thought it important to use this theme for the first in a series of conferences about what is at stake in today’s society.

On this occasion, Dr. David K. Foot, an economics professor from the University of Toronto and co-author of the bestseller Boom, Bust and Echo, referred to the “revenge of the Pill” and came back to this idea numerous times while presenting statistical tables on population ages in Western countries. Thirty-five years after the publication of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical on family planning, it is very interesting to hear the analysis of this demographic specialist.

In Canada, where the vast majority of couples including Catholics use one form or another of artificial contraception, the dangers that Paul VI foresaw with the arrival of the Pill have become real: marital infidelity, sexual promiscuity and pre-marital sex. It goes without saying that contraception is not the only explanation for these phenomena, nor for the demographic free-fall currently seen in the Canadian population. Worry about the future, an increasing workload, consumerism and many other reasons also come into play.


Abortion is another danger for the family. A logical consequence of the failure of artificial contraception, abortion is also used as a method of birth control. 

Since 1988 there has been no law against abortion in Canada. It is available on request at any stage of the pregnancy. In 2000, there were 32.2 abortions for every 100 live births, for a total of 105,427 abortions.

One rarely or never hears about “post-abortion syndrome”, the name given to the devastating consequences that abortion has on many women whose lives have been marked by regret, feelings of guilt and shame, as well as suicidal thoughts; women who were not able to find the moral or material support they needed to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term.

This syndrome also threatens families, just like the infertility that can result from an abortion. Is this told to girls 14 years of age and older who are legally allowed to have an abortion without their parents being told by the school or the doctor?

Sex education 

It is important to mention another factor that impacts on future families: too often sex education as taught in public elementary and secondary schools is inadequate and often inaccurate.

Under the guise of “protecting love” in the context of the AIDS epidemic which threatens heterosexuals as well as homosexuals, the condom is being promoted as the miracle solution for avoiding sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as well as AIDS. Unfortunately, little attention is being paid to studies that cast doubt on its real effectiveness, and to statistics about its failure.

Hardly a word is spoken about chastity and abstinence. Furthermore, little real education is given about love and fidelity, which would allow youth to discover the greatness of a family project founded on marriage. 

The message that is given most often is: “It’s normal to be sexually active, and because you will eventually have sexual relations, here’s how you can protect yourself ….” This constitutes a threat not only to young people’s physical, emotional and moral health, but also to their capability to make a long-term commitment.

Encouraged to be sexually active, young people multiply their pre-marital experiences, and accumulate many disappointments in love. Their bodies and souls are injured, and their ability to trust is slowly worn away – the trust that is so fundamental when building a lasting marriage.

When faced with the inevitable conflicts that are a part of married life, how can we be surprised to see them run away from marital difficulties in search of new sexual adventures for which their sexual education, based on instant gratification, has prepared them? 

Reconciling work and family

On a day-to-day basis, Canadian families face other realities that get in the way of their hopes for a lasting commitment. The difficulties of reconciling work and family preoccupy an ever-increasing number of citizens and have become an issue that can no longer be avoided. In wanting to take both their professional and family responsibilities seriously, many parents feel as though they are just managing to survive instead of living.

In 2002, in the National Study on Balancing Work, Family and Lifestyle, Canadians defined as follows the conflict between work and home:

“It is having a job that interferes with your family life. It is when your family interferes with your career and your ability to get ahead at work. It is when housework interferes with time for yourself. It is having a long commute to and from work that takes a toll on your energy. It is role overload – having too much to do in the amount of time available. It is being crunched for time – constantly. It is going it alone as a single parent or living with a workaholic. It is balancing two or more jobs with a life. It is balancing work and education with a life. It is postponing having children (perhaps forever) because you cannot see how you can manage one more thing.” 

Time: A precious commodity

Time is a rare commodity for families, especially when both parents are working outside the home, or when a single parent is responsible for the children’s upbringing while working as well. Overburdened by their heavy schedules, parents are exhausted. They have almost no time to be together. They have little time to spend with their children or teens. Several studies have shown that parents spent 11 hours a week with their children in 2001, compared to 16 hours per week in 1991.

By constantly reducing the amount of time they spend together, the ties that bind family members become looser and are worn thinner. It would be much more advantageous to everyone in the family if they could rediscover the joy of sharing 1001 everyday activities, such eating together, going for a walk or participating in a sport, praying together, or discussing current events.

Families that put their life together first, often by making very real sacrifices where their career or lifestyles are concerned, give each other a remarkable gift. Less stressed and less tired, parents and children benefit from the joy of spending time and growing together.

The working world

The working world is not always well adapted to the reality of family life. Even though the public sector offers well-defined advantages to employees to help them fulfil their commitments to their families, the private sector often does not. 

Some examples are: flex-time, childcare at work, parental leave when a new child arrives in the family, and also a federal government proposal that would allow six weeks of compassionate leave to family members forced to leave work to be with another family member who is gravely ill or dying.

The disproportionately high productivity requirements of some employers in the private sector, and their efforts to address the challenges of globalization, have a negative impact on many families. The insecurity and financial vulnerability that go hand in hand with a lack of job security, and the worry and ensuing poverty that can come from the loss of a job, combine to discourage young people from getting married and having a family. For them, it is often simpler just to live together and put off having children until much later. We must make the private sector more aware of the responsibility it has to respect the demands of the family lives of its employees.

The media

Media also share a real responsibility for the current state of the Canadian family. They are no strangers to its past or its future since, as the Holy Father reminded us on the occasion of World Communications Day, “each message has a moral dimension.” The messages we hear can urge us to do good or evil. 

Though it is true that the media can present a convincing portrait of the importance of family and can be a powerful educational tool, they far too often present a reductive view of family life.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the media on our mentality, particularly television, which often is the sole source of information and learning for many Canadians of all ages. The content of television shows frequently leaves much to be desired, and the program design is hardly better. Think for a moment about reality TV, or even soap operas or sit-coms that feature people whose moral behaviour goes against fundamental human values and, consequently, Christian values.

Too often, marital infidelity and pre-marital sex are presented as everyday behaviour – with all the consequences this can have on family life and on the minds of impressionable children and teens who see these shows as a reflection of “normal life”. The same can be said about divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality.

Many Canadian families today realize the media can have a negative impact on their solidarity and unity. The Internet is another powerful invader, often capturing too much of a young person’s or even an adult’s mind and time, resulting in isolation from the rest of the family and even leading to unhealthy things such as pornography. 

The State and subsidiarity

Contrary to what we might hope, the State does not always accept the rule of subsidiarity where families are concerned. Instead of helping parents to assume their primary responsibilities as educators, it sometimes takes over their role.

As an example, I will use the childcare policies put in place by the Government of Quebec to respond to the needs of the poorest families. At first glance, it seems like a shining example of inexpensive daycare that meets the needs and desires of many families. Upon closer examination, it is clear that it does not satisfy all parents.

This policy supports families where both parents are employed outside the home. In 1998, the Vanier Institute of the Family reported that 64 percent of mothers who had children under three years old were employed. As for couples choosing to live on one salary to allow one parent or the other to stay home and educate their children, they receive hardly any government assistance. This is unfair.

A government that is truly aware of the irreplaceable role of parents in the raising of future citizens should devote a greater portion of its tax money to help parents in this difficult task. True family-related policies, respectful of the choices of all parents, are sorely needed in Canada.

I now turn to the most significant and immediate threat facing families in Canada and that is the redefinition of marriage. 


At the meeting of Presidents of Episcopal Conferences that took place in Santo Domingo in September 2002 on life and family, the CCCB President at that time, Bishop Jacques Berthelet, C.S.V., stated that the most radical challenge to marriage and family in Canada was from those seeking to redefine marriage to include same-sex partners. Since that meeting, the Appeal Courts in two of the most populous provinces (British Columbia and Ontario) have decided that same-sex partners have the constitutional right to marry. Hundreds of same-sex partners have now been legally married in Canada. How did this happen?

1. Social Benefits for Same-Sex Partners

The social revolution that has occurred in Canada about the recognition of same-sex relationships has been largely driven by the courts. As a result of a series of legal challenges that began about 15 years ago, the provincial human rights codes in all the provinces and the Canadian Human Rights Act have been amended to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the areas of employment; the provision of goods, services or facilities customarily available to the public; and accommodation. These gains were then used to challenge the historical understanding of spouse and to obtain health, pension and other benefits available to married and heterosexual common-law couples.

Most provinces and the federal government have now given to same-sex partners almost the same economic benefits and responsibilities as previously reserved to common-law and married couples. The only difference is that common-law and same-sex partners only acquire their rights following a period of cohabitation that varies from province to province. Married couples acquire these upon marriage.

2. Domestic Partnership/Same-Sex Unions

In 2000, the Province of Nova Scotia introduced a registered domestic partnership regime where common-law and same-sex partners immediately upon registration of their relationship can obtain the same rights and obligations as married people under 12 provincial statutes dealing with such areas as property, inheritance rights and pension benefits. In June 2002, the Province of Quebec introduced legislation that allows common-law couples and same-sex partners to enter civil unions with rights similar to married couples. The Quebec legislation also confers full adoption and other parental rights on same-sex partners. The Province of Manitoba has legislation which provides for the registration of two unmarried opposite or same-sex adults as common-law partners. The Province of Alberta has proposed legislation that would allow for the legal recognition of partnership contracts between two unmarried adults, whether or not they are in a “conjugal” relationship. 

3. The Law on Marriage in Canada

The Canadian Constitution divides the power to make laws between the federal Parliament and the provincial and territorial legislatures, and sets out the basic rights and freedoms of each individual in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In Canada, the legal definition of marriage comes under federal jurisdiction, with the provinces having jurisdiction over the solemnization of marriage (that is, licences, determining who can conduct the ceremony and how, registration). 

Marriage is not created or defined by law but simply recognized by the law as a pre-existing institution which is the “voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”. In all of the provinces and territories except Quebec, this is known as the common-law (judge-made) definition of marriage. The Quebec Civil Code and the Federal Law-Civil Law Harmonization Act contain a similar provision.

4. Marriage – A Matter of Social Policy or Human Rights

Gay rights advocates in Ontario and British Columbia have been able to convince the Courts of Appeal in these two provinces that marriage is a human right rather than a question of social policy. 

During the last year, judges have held that the opposite-sex definition of marriage discriminates against same-sex partners by violating their human dignity and right to equality, and redefined marriage to be “the voluntary union for life of two persons to the exclusion of all others”.

Respecting human dignity is integral to the right of equality under the Charter. The Supreme Court of Canada has elaborated the concept of human dignity to mean:

Human dignity means that an individual or group feels self-respect and self-worth. It is concerned with psychological integrity and empowerment. Human dignity is harmed by unfair treatment premised upon personal traits or circumstances which do not relate to individual needs, capacities, or merits. It is enhanced by laws which are sensitive to the needs, capacities, and merits of different individuals, taking into account the context underlying their differences. Human dignity is harmed when individuals and groups are marginalized, ignored, or devalued, and is enhanced when laws recognize the full place of all individuals and groups within Canadian society.

The Ontario Court of Appeal found that “denying same-sex couples the right to marry perpetuates the view that same-sex couples are not capable of forming loving and lasting relationships, and thus same-sex relationships are not worthy of the same respect and recognition as opposite-sex relationships.”

The Court also held that exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage “perpetuates the view that same-sex relationships are less worthy of recognition than opposite-sex relationships. In doing so, it offends the dignity of persons in same-sex relationships.”

The Ontario Court also found that the three specific purposes of marriage identified by the Government of Canada were not pressing and substantial so as to justify overriding the equality rights of persons in same-sex relationships.

a) It said that the purpose of uniting the opposite sexes favours one form of relationship over another, suggesting that uniting two persons of the same sex is of lesser importance, thereby demeaning the dignity of same-sex couples.

b) The second purpose of encouraging the birth and raising of children was found not to be a reason for maintaining marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. In the Court’s view, heterosexual couples will not stop having or raising children because same-sex couples are permitted to marry, and same-sex unions can have children by other means such as adoption, surrogacy and donor insemination. The Court also noted that a law that restricts marriage to opposite-sex couples on the basis that a fundamental purpose of marriage is the raising of children suggests that same-sex couples are not equally capable of childrearing. The Court said that the objective is based on a stereotypical assumption which is not acceptable in a free and democratic society that prides itself on promoting equality and respect for all persons.

c) The Court held that the third objective of promoting companionship perpetuates the view that persons in same-sex relationships are not equally capable of providing companionship and forming lasting and loving relationships.

Finally, the Court held that freedom of religion under the Charter ensures that religious groups have the option of refusing to solemnize same-sex marriages. It also noted that “the equality guarantee, however, ensures that the beliefs and practices of various religious groups are not imposed on persons who do not share those views.” 

5. The Next Legal and Political Steps

The Government of Canada chose not to appeal the British Columbia and Ontario court decisions. This means that same-sex partners may marry in those two provinces and that for the first time in our country the core definition of marriage for civil purposes is different from what it is for most religious groups. These decisions only apply to the provinces in which they were made. For same-sex marriage to be legal across Canada, there would have to be either federal legislation or a binding decision of the Supreme Court of Canada.

The federal government has referred the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada and asked it for a non-binding advisory opinion on a number of questions, including: 1) the constitutionality of a definition that marriage is the “lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others”, 2) the constitutionality of the opposite-sex definition of marriage and 3) whether freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter will protect religious officials from being compelled to perform a marriage between two persons of the same-sex that is contrary to their religious beliefs.

The Government of Canada has made it clear that it will not defend the traditional definition of marriage in the Court, and that regardless of the opinion rendered by the Court it will introduce legislation that supports a definition of marriage that includes same-sex couples. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as other groups, has been granted the right to intervene in the Supreme Court of Canada and will argue in favour of the traditional definition. The federal government has also granted a free vote to members of Parliament on the eventual legislation, which means they do not have to vote along party lines. 

Some key questions and challenges to maintaining the traditional definition of marriage

1. The Government of Canada has stated that it promotes allowing same-sex partners being allowed to marry because it reflects values of tolerance, respect and equality consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the same time, the government has stressed that religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages which are not in accordance with their religious beliefs. This gives the impression that faith groups that oppose marriages between people of the same sex do not believe in tolerance, respect or equality. The government has also managed to position the redefinition of marriage as a religious issue, rather than a social issue. In our country, the definition of an issue as religious usually results in its being marginalized or banished from the public square.

2. Canadians are used to rapid change. For many, changing the definition of marriage is just one more change among those that have been made to reflect the equality of men and women. Many Canadians do not seem to appreciate that previous developments within the institution of marriage have not been in conflict with the basic purpose and nature of marriage. 

3. Many, particularly those who are young, do not understand why two people cannot marry if they love each other. They do not readily see that marriage recognizes not only love and commitment, but also the natural capacity to create children, and that there is a fundamental difference between a relationship which has the potential to create a child and one that does not.

4. The strong individualism in Canada has paved the way for an approach to many moral questions – be it abortion, assisted suicide or marriage – in which individual practices govern, rather than principles or ideals. Therefore, many Canadians assert that procreation is no longer a valid objective to marriage because not all married couples have children, and same-sex partners can have children through the new technologies or adoption. For these Canadians, exceptions redefine the purposes of an institution.

5. The argument is also made that there is little point in trying to save an institution when fewer and fewer people are choosing it and when many do not live up to its ideals. It is as though failure to live up to ideals is reason to abandon them. 

6. It is often claimed that the marriage of same-sex partners will have no impact on traditionally married couples. This reflects a common failure to differentiate between the individual and societal perspective. The legal fact of a number of same-sex marriages in some areas of the country probably does have little impact on married men and women. Exactly what the social impact of such a change would be cannot be measured at this time. We do know, however, that we would no longer have an institution that symbolizes our commitment as a society to our future: our children. Instead, we would have an institution that symbolizes our commitment to the present needs and desires of adults. This reflects the marked individualism of our culture.

7. Given that same-sex partners in Canada have almost all the social benefits of married couples, it seems to many that we are just fighting over a word. This is again a symptom of the rootlessness of our culture which seems to have so much lost its appreciation for the sense of the history, meaning and symbolism associated with marriage. We appear to have lost the sense of being connected to the generations that have gone before us. 

8. For Canadians, the values of equality, tolerance and respect are extremely important. No one wants to be or appear to be against human rights. By characterizing access to marriage as an issue of human rights, those in favour of extending the definition of marriage have won half the battle. Catholics wonder why the Church appears to be supporting what the courts have described as discrimination. 

9. Canadians have a highly developed sense of fairness, and our increasingly multi-cultural society has made us more sensitive to differences. People are therefore becoming more aware of the variety of adult relationships other than marriage that involve commitment, caring and mutual emotional and financial support – common-law unions, same-sex unions and other adult non-sexual relationships; for example, sisters or brothers who live together. There is an expectation that there will be a response to the needs and aspiration of these groups. 

10. Some have challenged the right of the Church to participate in this debate on the basis that it concerns only civil marriage and that the sacrament of marriage can continue to be celebrated in accordance with our beliefs. This view is being promoted by those who wish to see a stronger separation between Church and State. There is also an attempt by some to inhibit the Church from speaking out because of the sexual abuse scandals.

11. When all is said and done, however, surveys show that the Canadian population is quite divided on this matter. There is no doubt that the cultural elites – media, public servants and the courts – support the redefinition of marriage and are doing their utmost to shape public opinion. But they may have miscalculated or disregarded where many people are on this question.


I believe that I have given you a glimpse of the principal challenges faced by the traditional family unit in Canada today. These challenges compromise the very existence of the family and are part of the worrying trend of secularization in Canada. Because the family is the first place in which today’s children learn how to become the women and men of tomorrow, it is essential that re-evangelization begin here.

 Copyright © Archbishop Brendan M. O'Brien, 2004