"I think it's safe to say we haven't seen this type of response in recent history," said Neil MacCarthy, director of public relations and communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto.
The reaction has been "overwhelmingly positive" since the May 14 letter, and has come from both inside and outside the Catholic community, MacCarthy said. He cited hundreds of phone calls, letters and emails from clergy and parishioners and a record-breaking response on social media.
"I've never had so many clergy, both from the Archdiocese of Toronto and outside the archdiocese, send notes or phone to offer their gratitude and encouragement to Cardinal Collins," MacCarthy said.
As one example, MacCarthy said that a typical posting on the archdiocese Facebook page might garner 1,000 views. The posting of the cardinal's letter was viewed more than 100,000 times, MacCarthy said.
"There are also a number of people who contacted our office by phone or email and indicated that they will no longer be members of the Liberal Party," he said.
In an interview, Collins said he was grateful for the support and found it interesting that even people who disagree with him on abortion agreed with his letter to Trudeau, which defended conscience rights.
Collins said the disregard shown by Trudeau for the conscience rights of Liberal MPs is misguided and unjustified, and the Liberal leader should rethink his unprecedented stand against pro-life supporters.
The Toronto archbishop's letter was in response to a May 7 decree by Trudeau that future Liberal candidates must "vote pro-choice on any bills." Trudeau said new candidates will be screened on their abortion views and only those who are "resolutely pro-choice" will be permitted to stand in elections as Liberal candidates.
"Politicians do not have the right to control everything in a person's conscience, but more and more there is a tendency to do so," Collins said in an interview. "Mr. Trudeau's party is not the only party to have such detailed ideological requirements — which I believe are misguided in substance — but I think party leaders are unjustified to require all candidates to follow a rather shallow and misguided view of life."
In the interview, Collins said he is greatly troubled by a trend in Parliament to muzzle free speech and even block independent thought.
"I think that is bad for the country, bad for a party and unjustifiable as an intrusion into the rights of citizens," Collins said. "There has always been a tradition in Parliament to have free votes on matters of conscience."
In his letter, Collins wrote that it was wrong that anyone "be excluded by any party for being faithful to their conscience."
"I am deeply concerned about your decision that citizens who, in conscience, seek to assure the protection of the most vulnerable among us are not acceptable as candidates in your party," he wrote.
The letter asserted that "political authority is not limitless: it does not extend to matters of conscience and religious faith."
Trudeau's responded to the letter by asserting that a 1988 Supreme Court decision stated that a women's right to abortion is guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“And the Liberal Party is the party of the Charter," Trudeau said. "And Canadians need to count on the fact that Liberals, with our votes, will defend women’s rights and Charter rights.”
But legal experts say Trudeau is wrong about the Charter. The Charter does not establish an absolute right to abortion and the 1988 Court decision clearly invited Parliament to regulate the practice, said Catholic Civil Rights League president Phil Horgan.
“[The Liberals] are engaging in spin as opposed to the reality of Canadian law,” said Horgan, a constitutional lawyer.
“It’s intriguing when these individuals say they support the Charter. What’s their position on Section 2a of the Charter that outlines freedom of religion and freedom of conscience?”
Although Trudeau seemed to backpedal on his original statement by later saying new Liberal candidates could hold pro-life beliefs, he was adamant on the conscience issue, insisting Liberals must always vote pro-choice.
"We obviously respect the cardinal, and his views,” said a statement from the Liberal leader's office. “This is a matter of rights, and Canadians need to know that when they vote Liberal, they will get a representative who supports and defends women’s rights.”
Collins said he finds it remarkable that people who consider themselves "free-thinking" are imposing their personal views with "absolute stringency."
"Pope Francis is absolutely correct when he speaks about 'the dictatorship of relativism'," Collins said in the interview. "The positions being presented are very relativistic — lacking in depth and unjustifiable in my opinion.
"For the country and for the party surely it's better to have people who are not all programmed to think the way the leader thinks. People see that this level of control at such a detailed level in a person's life is not justifiable."
(With files from Canadian Catholic News)