.- Freedom of religion and conscience are in danger of disappearing from Canadian society, the country's bishops warned on May 14.
âIn 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,â the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops observed in Monday's pastoral letter.
âAt times,â the bishops observed, âbelievers are being legally compelled to exercise their profession without reference to their religious or moral convictions, and even in opposition to them.â They pointed to the dangers of âradical secularismâ and an âaggressiveâ relativism that opposes all claims of truth.
The Canadian bishops also highlighted the anti-religious nature of some âanti-discriminationâ 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 âacrimonious procedures,â they said, âwould be better replaced by a civilized and respectful debateâ that offers âa voice in the public forum to religious believers.â
âIf 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,â the bishops stated.
Billed as a âpressing appealâ to people of all religions and outlooks, the Canadian bishops' âPastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religionâ cites the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which numbers âfreedom of conscience and religionâ 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 âacknowledges and respectsâ but âdoes not grant.â
The Canadian bishops cited the Second Vatican Council's document on religious liberty, âDignitatis Humanae,â which declared that a person should not be âforced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.â
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 âeveryone of good will.â
The archbishop explained that Catholics, non-Catholics, and even non-believers have a shared interest in âthe right of religion to be active in the public square.â Both groups should also seek âhealthy Church-State relationsâ that distinguish between the two without pushing the Church out of public life.
Canadians were also urged to form their consciences âaccording to objective truthâ â rather than personal preference or the will of the majority â and to safeguard the right of conscientious objection, especially in areas âlinked to the dignity of human life and the family.â
In some Canadian provinces, the bishops warned, these rights have already been compromised or lost.
âFor example, some colleges of physicians require that members who refuse to perform abortions refer patients to another physician willing to do so,â they noted.
âElsewhere 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.â
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 âto educate their children in their religious convictions and to choose the schools which provide that formation.â The state, meanwhile, âhas the obligation to protect this right â¦ and to create a suitable environment where it can be enjoyed.â
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, âmust be prepared to suffer the consequences that result from fidelity to Christ.â If they are not given an accommodation or reprieve, they should receive âthe effective solidarity and prayerful support of their religious communities.â
âThe Churchâs vitality has often been nourished by persecution,â the bishops noted. âOur era is no exception.â