Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Archbishop Richard Smith Register file photo

Bishops: Canadians experience 'worrisome erosion' of religious rights

  • May 20, 2012

OTTAWA - Canada's Catholic bishops have published a defense of freedom of conscience and religious freedom as these universal rights come under increasing threat around the world.

The Catholic community and other religious groups are "experiencing a worrisome erosion" of these freedoms, said Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Archbishop Richard Smith in an open letter introducing the "Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religious freedom" published May 14 at

(Right-click and save-as to download the letter as a PDF)

Religious freedom can be attacked by overt violence, Smith said, or "more subtle means, as in the case of legislative means that limit the respect owed to the conscience of each person, or inhibit the right of all religions, or their individual believers, to live their faith publicly and to follow the dictates of a well-formed conscience."

Smith said the CCCB's Permanent Council released the letter to stress the importance of these freedoms to the common good. The document states: "these freedoms are not granted by the state, society or any human authority, but belong to all people by virtue of their humanity."

"Recent international and national events present a disturbing trend of threats to freedom of conscience and religion experienced by those who suffer from bias, prejudice, hate propaganda, discrimination and persecution because of their religious beliefs," the letter says.

On the international scene, the letter notes that 75 per cent of all religious persecution is directed at Christians. The letter names the massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt, church bombings in Nigeria, the interference of the Chinese government in Church affairs and the effects of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

The bishops urge the protection of rights of conscientious objection that are being undermined in Canada and other Western democracies. It also exhorts people to form their consciences in the light of objective truth and to resist, even to the point of suffering, any pressures to violate them.

The 12-page document is addressed to all Canadians, religious and non-religious.

"As Catholic bishops, we particularly want to address those members of the faithful who find themselves in difficult situations where they may be pressured to act against their religious faith or their conscience," the document said.

"Those who will not co-operate with the requirements of an immoral law must be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to uphold the truth and to bear the suffering that results," the letter says, citing the martyrdom of St. Thomas More as an inspiring example.

In Canada, the document notes most of the conflicts come in regard to legislation or regulations around human life or the traditional family. Among recent problems, the bishops list:

o Colleges of physicians compelling doctors who refuse to perform abortions to refer patients to a doctor who will do them;

o Pharmacists threatened if they refuse on conscience grounds to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or the "morning-after pill," an abortifacient;

o Marriage commissioners in British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan who must perform same-sex marriages or resign.

It doesn't discuss the recent controversy in Ontario over an anti-bullying bill now before the legislature that would force publicly funded Catholic schools to allow Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) if students want them or Quebec's mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture program that many Catholic parents have argued violates their right to bring their children up in the Catholic faith by imposing a relativistic view of religion. However, it provides a robust apologetic for religious freedom as a universal human right and offers ammunition to those fighting to protect Catholic educational rights and conscientious objection on moral issues.

The letter defends the right of religious believers to participate in the public square and explains that religious freedom is more than mere freedom of worship.

"Besides being free from external coercion, everyone must be able freely to exercise the right to choose, profess, disseminate and practise his or her own religion," the bishops write. "This includes freedom for parents to educate their children in their religious convictions and to choose the schools which provide that formation.

"Moreover, the state has the obligation to protect this right by means of a legal and administrative framework and to create a suitable environment where it can be enjoyed," it says.

"Religious freedom is the most meaningful freedom of all," the bishops write, explaining how religious faith is rooted in the transcendent and concerns the search for truth.

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