Cardinal Thomas Collins speaks at a past Cardinal’s Dinner against the “shadow of euthanasia.” The religious voice on such matters needs to be heard in the public square, Canada’s bishops say in a new pastoral letter. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Toronto

Canada's bishops speak out for religious freedom

  • July 12, 2023

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a new pastoral letter, is seeking to empower Catholics to reclaim their distinctive perspective and voice in society.

Co-authored by Valleyfield Bishop Noel Simard, the letter — titled “Living as Catholics in the Public Square: Freedom of Religion and Conscience in Canada” — said freely expressed Catholic beliefs “can bring a true value to societal life,” but they are being constrained.

“Some governments and people are fighting to restrain the presence of the Church in the public square,” said Simard, who also serves on the board of directors for the Pontifical Academy for Life. “They want you to confine your religion only to a private square. The religious dimensions of life must not only be expressed at Church or at home, but also in the public square. We have something to say and bring to the public square, especially when fundamental values are jeopardized.”

Simard can cite a couple recent examples of how Christian beliefs are not being welcomed in the public forum. He mentioned how last month the Quebec government nullified a building rental contract with a few Christian and pro-life groups. These assemblies sought to gather at the Centre des Congrés du Québec for a three-day spiritual “Battle for Canada” prayer event. However, this event was falsely branded as an anti-abortion gathering and the Quebec government decided to call an end to this summit because of its pro-choice position.

The bishop, formerly an ethics professor at the University of Sudbury and Saint Paul University in Ottawa, also mentioned how the anti-euthanasia and pro-palliative-care Quebec citizen network Vivre dans la Dignité (Living with Dignity) — a secular organization yet with a religious-friendly mission — cannot secure charitable status but Dying with Dignity, the prominent champion of medical assistance in dying, has received that designation.

One segment of the letter outlines the role of the state in protecting religious liberty. In the CCCB’s view section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom charges the country’s government with the mantle of upholding “fundamental freedoms for the good of all and to foster a common life ordered towards the common good of human flourishing.”

The Canadian bishops deem that public institutions across the country have not lived up to this obligation. The bishops call for an “open” secularism in society where the state remains neutral and allows all forms of peacefully expressed beliefs to be shared freely without interference. Instead, they argue that a “closed” secularism has been imposed, which does “not accommodate different beliefs or that only barely allows — if at all — the public manifestation of belief.”

Other segments of the eight-page letter articulate human dignity as the basis of these rights, envisions what religious freedom in the public square should look and sound like and describes the contributions Catholic can make to communal life.

“Living as Catholics in the Public Square: Freedom of Religion and Conscience in Canada” echoes a similar letter penned by the CCCB Permanent Council in 2012.

Victoria Bishop Gary Gordon said the timing was right to disseminate this dispatch again.

“It was the feeling of the Permanent Council and the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace that the message may be timely at this point post-COVID,” said Gordon. “During COVID we saw lots of different things going on in terms of the common good or not the common good. The sands continue to shift. We figured it was a good idea to reimagine and remind our Catholic faithful of their evangelization responsibility as baptized people.”

Gordon said that his favourite passage of the letter is the conclusion. It states that if we exercise our freedom “so as to profess the Incarnation and Christ’s Resurrection as Catholics, we embrace an asceticism of manifesting this great joy within a public square often devoid of joy and hope.” Following the footsteps of the Apostle Peter, we are called “to give an explicit account of the faith that is within us (1 Peter 3:15), to let that faith radiate through our actions, to uphold what is true, and to love.”

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