Canadians' religious freedom in danger, bishops warn

By Benjamin Mann

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Freedom of religion and conscience are in danger of disappearing from Canadian society, the country's bishops warned on May 14.

“In the past decade in Canada there have been several situations that raise the question whether our right to freedom of conscience and religion is everywhere respected,” the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops observed in Monday's pastoral letter.

“At times,” the bishops observed, “believers are being legally compelled to exercise their profession without reference to their religious or moral convictions, and even in opposition to them.” They pointed to the dangers of “radical secularism” and an “aggressive” relativism that opposes all claims of truth.

The Canadian bishops also highlighted the anti-religious nature of some “anti-discrimination” laws, as well as the tendency of advocacy groups to use provincial Human Rights Tribunals to promote a radical agenda and block believers from speaking and acting freely.

These “acrimonious procedures,” they said, “would be better replaced by a civilized and respectful debate” that offers “a voice in the public forum to religious believers.”

“If that voice is suppressed in any way, believers should view this as a restriction on their right to freedom of religion, one which should be forcefully challenged,” the bishops stated.

Billed as a “pressing appeal” to people of all religions and outlooks, the Canadian bishops' “Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion” cites the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which numbers “freedom of conscience and religion” among the fundamental Canadian liberties.

However, the bishops' message also makes it clear that religious freedom is not a right given by the government. Rather, it is a human right that the state “acknowledges and respects” but “does not grant.”

The Canadian bishops cited the Second Vatican Council's document on religious liberty, “Dignitatis Humanae,” which declared that a person should not be “forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

As they called attention to national and global threats to this right, the bishops also offered four points for reflection and action. In an introduction to the letter, conference president Archbishop Richard W. Smith of Edmonton summed up its advice to Catholics and “everyone of good will.”

The archbishop explained that Catholics, non-Catholics, and even non-believers have a shared interest in “the right of religion to be active in the public square.” Both groups should also seek “healthy Church-State relations” that distinguish between the two without pushing the Church out of public life.

Canadians were also urged to form their consciences “according to objective truth” – rather than personal preference or the will of the majority – and to safeguard the right of conscientious objection, especially in areas “linked to the dignity of human life and the family.”

In some Canadian provinces, the bishops warned, these rights have already been compromised or lost.

“For example, some colleges of physicians require that members who refuse to perform abortions refer patients to another physician willing to do so,” they noted.

“Elsewhere pharmacists are being threatened by being forced to have to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or the 'morning after' pill; and marriage commissioners in British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan must now perform same-sex marriages or resign.”

Under these circumstances, they said, Christians have both a right and a duty to stand against laws that violate the moral order.

The bishops also affirmed parents' right “to educate their children in their religious convictions and to choose the schools which provide that formation.” The state, meanwhile, “has the obligation to protect this right … and to create a suitable environment where it can be enjoyed.”

In the course of upholding their principles, believers may also be forced to suffer for them. The Canadian bishops cited the example of Saint Thomas More, an English patron saint of Catholics in political life, who chose martyrdom when asked to put his country above his faith.

Believers who defy an unjust state decree, they warned, “must be prepared to suffer the consequences that result from fidelity to Christ.” If they are not given an accommodation or reprieve, they should receive “the effective solidarity and prayerful support of their religious communities.”

“The Church’s vitality has often been nourished by persecution,” the bishops noted. “Our era is no exception.”

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