Moving from a piecemeal approach, bishop by bishop, to a single universal set of rules:
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero who legalized same-sex marriage in their countries, and about a dozen American politicians who support gay marriage - including San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom who issued marriage licenses last year to same-sex couples - could be refused the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church under a proposal being considered by the Vatican.
Catholic bishops meeting in Vatican City at the first synod led by newly anointed Pope Benedict XVI are expected to consider refusing communion to politicians who pass laws that violate church doctrine.
The synod gets underway today.
What does Paul Martin say about this?
"I am a practicing Catholic, in fact I am a strong Catholic,'' Martin told a Vancouver news conference following meetings with visiting Mexican President Vicente Fox.
So as a strong Catholic, the notion of being denied communion should be a serious, indeed frightening, concern:
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin called the proposal "unfortunate".
"Have I discussed (this) with senior churchmen, with bishops? The answer is yes, I have. But as far as any further comment, I'm a legislator and that's public and I will comment on my public position. As a Catholic, that's my faith and I'll keep that to myself.''
A Catholic who keeps his faith "private" is not a Catholic. You can't sin in public, and then say, well, that's my job, and pretend to be a good Catholic when no one is looking. It doesn't really count then.
Will such a plan be passed?
The ban on the sacraments is supported by bishops from Spain and Canada as well as a number from the US. The proposal reportedly has the endorsement of Pope Benedict.
So what will this mean in Canada?
Based on previous experience (see here and here and here), expect the government to get its collective back up, especially on the Liberal and NDP benches, demanding the the Church keep its nose out of politics.
What does it mean to keep out of politics? If the Church refuses to give communion to a politician, does that constitute a political act? Apparently to some people, it does.
By that standard, the Church would be required to behave as if it were blind to all acts and decisions made by politicians, for fear of a critical comment being construed as being a political act and thus forbidden. So for the rest of us, engineers and lawyers and stay-at-home-moms and construction workers and so on, when we sin publicly, we can expect the possibility of public punishment from the Church.
But Catholic politicians will exist on a different plane, shielded from criticism by virtue of their membership of government.
This is regalism. When Paul Martin suggests that the Church's opinions must be voiced only in private, and that in his public persona as Prime Minister, he is exempt from the rules governing all other Catholics, the role of the Church shifts from being parallel to and independent from the State, to a subservient role, altering her behaviour and her message based on which politicians are in power and what social policy decisions they have decided to take on.
Pope Benedict XVI and the bishops aren't stupid, and they won't stand for this. A basic governing principle of Catholicism is that all people, from King to serf (or the modern equivalents), are equal in the eyes of God. The Church must act in a manner consistent with that principle. Does that mean powerful individuals have not in the past gotten what seems to be special treatment? Of course not, and it will probably happen again. The Church is also a human institution, and sometimes poor decisions are made, and sometimes circumstances demand compromise in order to avoid even more dire consequences than appearing inconsistent.
At stake here, though, is the fundamental relationship between Church and State, not just one politician's specific problem, or even one specific issue, like same-sex marriage. It is the notion that wherever the State chooses to cast its shadow, the Church must abandon all pretext of opinion or leadership.
That's not going to happen. Maybe this is what Paul Martin thinks is really "unfortunate".
One more thing -- this is not just about politicians. What has not been mentioned, but is certainly true, is that this policy, if adopted, will also act to force the clergy in line. Priests and bishops who are too cozy with politicians, too quick to give them as pass, are going to be told to start taking a harder stance. Some will comply, while others will fight it. The Church will be able to flush out the weak links and remove them (either move them to parishes where political decisions are not in play, or if their attitude is too out of line, remove them from the clergy altogether).
One of those priests who need to be concerned in none other than Prime Minister Paul Martin's parish priest, Father John Walsh:
Despite his stance on same-sex marriage, Paul Martin always will be welcome to receive the sacrament of communion in his home riding, the prime minister's local parish priest said yesterday.
"We can't use the eucharist as a time . . . to judge a person's conscience by refusing them communion," Rev. John Walsh told CJAD radio.
Really? Apparently the Pope disagrees:
Roman Catholic bishops meeting at the Vatican this weekend at the first synod led by newly anointed Pope Benedict may consider denying communion to politicians who pass laws that go against their faith.
But Walsh, who also hosts a weekly show on CJAD, disagrees with the idea.
Father Walsh prefers a different approach:
"I think that we must look at the situation and say: 'Are we respecting a person's conscience?' " asked Walsh, who preaches at St. Jean de Brebeuf Parish, where Martin attends mass in Montreal.
Father Walsh is one of those priests that seems to think his job is to make politicians feel good about themselves.
One can only speculate on what Father Walsh thinks he will get from that sort of relationship. Would you prefer what Paul Martin can offer you, or what God can?
Still, it is clergy like Walsh that enable Catholic politicians like Martin to pursue the politically expedient path, and think they have the Church's blessing, providing justification or absolution whenever the politician feels nervous about choosing the easy or popular position.
That in itself puts the Church below the State.
It looks like the Pope is planning to put an end to that.