OTTAWA — Canada’s Catholic bishops have called on the country to recover its respect for freedom of religion and conscience — much battered in recent years by government policies and judicial rulings that have sidelined religion from public life.
In a May 14 pastoral letter, the nation’s bishops affirmed freedom of religion and conscience is a fundamental right. In fact, they defended it as the fundamental human right and a cornerstone of democracy.
“[T]he right to religious freedom is ‘the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights.’ Where it is protected, peaceful coexistence, prosperity and participation in cultural, social and political life flourish. But when it is threatened, all other rights are weakened, and society suffers,” stated the “Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion.”
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms articulates similar principles and insights. It enumerates four “fundamental freedoms” early in the document, the first of which is “freedom of conscience and religion.”
The pastoral letter makes reference to recent regulatory decisions that force marriage commissioners to marry homosexuals, doctors to make referrals for abortions and pharmacists to sell abortifacients — or quit. Also cited are international examples of far more violent persecutions of Christians in other countries, such as the “massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the terrorist attacks on Christians in Nigeria.”
However, the letter was not prompted by outright religious persecution as much as a general attitude dismissing religion in the sphere of public affairs, said Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, Alberta.
“There is great regard, great praise for the Church, when we take care of the homeless or the sick,” said the archbishop, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. “However, when we challenge the status quo on life issues or family issues, you start to hear that this is our own private belief which we should keep to ourselves.”
The letter defended conscience as far more than mere opinion, defining it as “an inherent capacity to decide what one is morally obliged to do in relation to the objective moral order.”
A New, Tougher Church
Invoking the martyrdom of St. Thomas More, who was executed by King Henry VIII for opposing his divorce and remarriage, the bishops asked individual Christians to oppose laws and commands that violate their consciences. “For individuals who wish to follow … their conscience, it is sometimes necessary to resist, even in a heroic manner, the directives of the state, a court or an organization.”
It was this call, frequently mis-described as “civil disobedience,” that drew most attention from news media and pundits. A sociology of religion professor at the University of Ottawa, Martin Meunier, described the letter’s tone as the toughest he has heard in 30 years. “It is a transformation towards a more bellicose attitude, more aggressive in its response to events.”
Meunier professed to see the influence of Pope Benedict XVI in the letter’s striking rhetoric.
Secular critics described the letter as the latest expression of what religions in general and the Catholic Church in particular have been doing for millennia — imposing their views on an unwilling public.
In response to a Web report on the pastoral letter, a commentator using the name ZeeBeeSee declared that “what concerns secularists (and that includes many, many religious people) is that organized religions manipulate mass votes from the pulpit, exhorting the followers to vote on single, ill-advised issues that are religion-based, nor worldly-government based [sic].”
The same ZeeBeeSee calls for banning from the public square all organizations, even “school teachers, airline pilots and soldiers,” when they call on members to vote “in block,” pronouncing the practice a threat to democracy.
“Of course,” this commentator concludes, “in the case of Catholicism (and other religions), that group is virtually the opposite [sic] of democracy, so we can understand their tendency to play ‘follow the leader.’”
A more thoughtful attack comes from Justin Trottier and Michael Payton, national directors of the Centre for Inquiry Canada, an organization “dedicated to science, secularism and freedom of inquiry.” They describe the letter as an “arrogant” attempt to exploit “genuine persecution” overseas in order to protect undeserved domestic tax exemptions (which are, in fact, unmentioned in the pastoral letter).
The Church as Oppressor
The writers imply that the Church routinely uses its power to oppress the rights of others. They slyly note that “the same bishops demand that in Ontario, via their privileged publicly funded Roman Catholic School System, they should be able to deny a Charter right — freedom of association — to gay students.”
In fact, the bishops are opposing a new law forcing all schools to allow their buildings to be used by so-called “Gay-Straight Alliances” — clubs dedicated to normalizing sexual behavior condemned by Catholic moral teaching.
At no point do these critics deal with the bishops’ main premise: that the authors of the Charter meant what they said when they made religion a “fundamental freedom” along with association, assembly and thought and expression — and not, for example, gender or sexual expression.
The critics are not alone. As University of Victoria law professor Mary Anne Waldron said, “Many courts and commentators have understood religious freedom as useful only for personal flourishing and only for a small segment of the population that is still traditionally religious. In fact, we all — atheists, secularists, humanists and religious — operate on systems of belief and we all have issues of conscience.”
Waldron argues that the Charter places freedom of conscience and religion as the first of the fundamental freedoms to recognize that “it is fundamental to democracy itself, because in a pluralistic society, we form public policy through multiple conversations in which we all must engage with one another’s beliefs. That is what freedom of conscience and religion ultimately protects and what, if we fail to recognize its importance, we will ultimately lose.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from
Victoria, British Columbia.