The wildfire of anti-Catholic arsons last summer, like at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Mission, B.C., is the latest visible sign of anti-Christian bias, a manifestation of cancel culture that sees Catholics increasingly self-censoring their faith. (Photos courtesy The B.C. Catholic)

In face of ‘woke’ ideologies, Catholics increasingly self-censoring their faith

By 
  • June 30, 2022

VANVOUVER - While she was executive director of the pro-life group Vancouver’s Life Community, Annabelle Chong heard many stories from faithful Catholics who had to be cautious what they said in the workplace when hot-button subjects like abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights came up for discussion.

Controversial issues on which the Church maintains counter-cultural positions “definitely bring more heated discussion, and you do have to play it safe,” Chong said. “You have to be more careful in the workplace. You want to pick your battles ... and if you need to avoid controversial issues, then do so if you think your job is at stake.”

Such self-censorship by Catholic workers is “definitely not fair,” she admits, because fellow workers holding politically acceptable liberal “woke” views are usually free to espouse them at will.

Self-censorship can be seen as a manifestation of cancel culture, and it’s more than just a minor workplace irritant, say the authors of a major international report on the anti-Christian “chilling effect” that’s rolling across modern Western society. In fact, they say secular intolerance represents a “persecution engine” that is both pernicious and dangerous to religious freedom.

The report Perceptions on Self-Censorship: Confirming and Understanding the ‘Chilling Effect’ was published by the International Institute for Religious Freedom, the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America, and the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe.

Hate crimes, including the wildfire of anti-Catholic arson and vandalism that swept across Canada last summer following the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites, may be the latest, most visible manifestation of anti-Christian bias, but just as threatening is the rendering as unacceptable any expression of traditional Christian teaching on fundamental life issues.

Religious persecution is often thought of as “people who are jailed or facing criminal charges, or even facing death for their faith,” Canadian academic Janet Epp-Buckingham said during an online conference with the Vienna-based Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians.

“But in secular countries there is this ‘death by a thousand cuts’ ” consisting of “numerous smaller matters adding up to the larger issue of feeling under pressure for your faith and thereby having this chilling effect that ‘I can’t say anything about my faith,’ ” said Epp-Buckingham.

Epp-Buckingham, a professor at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., and director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, said in a later interview that while the report on self-censorship centred on case studies in France, Germany, Colombia and Mexico, there has been a clear narrowing of acceptable public discourse in Canada, with the result that Christians here are being forced to self-censor.

“Christians are afraid to express their views on social media for fear of repercussions at work or in their social circles,” said Epp-Buckingham, who is also executive editor of the International Journal for Religious Freedom.

“Christians are regularly advised to keep any church affiliation off their resume or LinkedIn as it might hurt their career. There seems to be a widespread view that religion should be a private matter and kept to oneself.”

The chilling effect could have even more serious effects, said Madeleine Enzlberger, executive director of the Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians.

“One of the most worrying and tragic findings of this report is that (it finds) if the social costs to follow your belief and to express it become too high, people will ultimately abandon their belief,” said Enzlberger. “And it is especially younger and uneducated people whose faith is at risk here.”

The study found secularization has narrowed the corridor of socially acceptable discourse, in turn producing a chilling effect on opinions outside of that corridor and ultimately precipitating extensive Christian self-censorship. The phenomenon is most noticeable in online social forums.

“It’s not about strict legal cases or persecution even,” said German sociologist Friederike Boellmann, one of the report’s three authors, “but every person that I interviewed noticed a change in the climate or a narrowing of the opinion corridor.”

German research showed it is universities that are the most hostile environment. 

“And the largest extent of self-censorship I found in my research (was) in the academic realm,” said Boellmann.

Some interviewees said the nature of public debate “has worsened to the point that people are forever excluded from debates, lose their professional credibility, are not invited anymore and — not to be underestimated — (are thought to) become dangers to other people that are seen in contact with them.”

The research found that Catholics tend to self-censor more than other Christians. While the researchers did not study the self-censorship problem in Canada, Trinity Western political-science professor Paul Rowe told the conference this country’s political climate has clearly had a chilling effect on Christians.

Rowe said the Liberal Party of Canada has been responsible for mobilizing the electorate along anti-religious lines, with the result that “Canada is far ahead of many other states when it comes to chilling Christian discourse.”

“The Liberal Party has long seen conservative Christians to be a soft target within the wider conservative movement,” said Rowe. 

“It has become clear that certain views are not acceptable within the Liberal Party’s ranks, and more to the point, they will run directly counter to them in an effort to pillory so-called social conservatives.”

Whether or not Christians feel they can publicize their beliefs, there are “clear reasons that they need to remain quiet about them if they wish to gain access to public funding,” Rowe said, citing such examples as the Canada Summer Jobs program and pro-life organizations’ charitable status.

Moreover, he said, “the breadth of application of (Parliament’s) conversion-therapy ban also leaves many religious people uncertain whether they can affirm conservative religious views on sexuality without fear of prosecution, whether or not they formally engage in trying to persuade someone to diverge from their chosen sexual preferences.”

Rowe said each of these policies has had a chilling effect not only on Christians but also on people of other religious communities and even some of no religion at all.

“The instrumental use of religion as a wedge to ply apart Canadian society is dangerous. It signals that there is a minority which neither fully belongs in our society, nor should it enjoy the full privileges of citizenship.”

Catherine H, a Catholic public sector worker whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said that pressure to conform to secular values takes many forms. Her employer is now encouraging employees to identify in their emails their favoured pronouns (she/hers, him/his, they/their). So far she is refusing and hasn’t spoken out against it.

“It’s not mandated, but there’s always the fear, ‘What if I don’t?’ ” she said. “If that should come down to a condition of employment, then that’s very troubling.”

Christian Elia, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said there is an easy solution to the problem.

“The solution really is to be more Catholic,” Elia said. “Think about it. We are called to love our neighbour and we’re also called to love our enemies. We are called to reconcile faith and reason.”

While Catholics are called to live lives of humility, that doesn’t mean being silent. 

“Quite frankly, we have to remind people of the immense good that we do,” said Elia. “What if our hospitals and schools didn’t exist? Would Canada be a better society? Of course not.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.