In defence of our first liberty

By 
  • October 4, 2011

On Oct, 3, Fr. de Souza was invited to address a consultative meeting of Canadian religious leaders convened by John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, about the decision of the federal government to establish an Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. What follows is an adaptation of what he said.

Just last spring I offered on Parliament Hill, in my capacity as chaplain of the St. Thomas More Society — an informal association of Catholic parliamentarians — a memorial Mass for Shahbaz Bhatti, the slain Pakistani minister, killed for his advocacy of the rights of religious minorities. That Mass, obviously Catholic, was attended by MPs and Senators of different parties, including many who were not Catholic, or even Christian. It was a sign that religious liberty is not an issue of special pleading by religious believers alone, much less religious believers of only one kind or another.

This morning I only speak for myself, but I would note that Pope Benedict XVI dedicated his annual message for the World Day of Peace 2011 to the importance of religious freedom.


Religious freedom is the first liberty, without which all other liberties are fragile. That is why from the Magna Carta to the American Bill of Rights, to our own Charter of Rights, religious liberty is the first liberty recognized. Pope Benedict wrote in his message: “Religious freedom ... cannot be denied without at the same time encroaching on all fundamental rights and freedoms, since it is their synthesis and keystone. It is the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights.”

The current international context includes serious threats to religious liberty.  There are four principal threats to religious liberty around the world: i) persecution of religious believers by officially atheistic states, as we find in China and Vietnam; ii) persecution of religious minorities by states which have a confessional character, as one finds in the Arabian peninsula and broader Middle East; iii) persecution of religious minorities by private actors, even in states where religious liberty is officially guaranteed, as one finds, for example, in South Asia; and iv) illegitimate restrictions on religious liberty by states infected by a sort of secular fundamentalism which is not very tolerant of religious belief.

The Office of Religious Freedom could usefully address points i) and ii) in Canada’s relations with other states, while also taking note of point iii). The fourth point is not something that such an office would be well-suited to handle.

To speak in defence of liberty — even to those who are not inclined to listen — is already an important act of political integrity and concrete assistance. We know from the communist period how important the words of some Western leaders were to those imprisoned. Those who pride themselves on their realism often ask what good would be done by words alone — better to keep quiet and work behind the scenes. Our words are never alone, and our protests are never in vain — speaking the truth itself is an act of solidarity with the persecuted. The Office of Religious Freedom could take the lead in tracking assaults on religious liberty and being an in-house advocate precisely against any institutional “realism” that would muffle Canada’s advocacy of religious liberty.

Canada’s reputation as a stable, peaceful and prosperous country, built upon and including diverse peoples, gives us a certain credibility in arguing that religious liberty is a not a threat to stability, peace and prosperity, as it is often argued by those who would suppress it. Canada is also home to many who have come here precisely because of religious persecution at home. We have in Canada local expertise on violations of religious liberty the world over. The new Office of Religious Freedom ought to take advantage of that.

If I may quote Pope Benedict’s message again: “Religious freedom, like every freedom, proceeds from the personal sphere and is achieved in relationship with others. ... Religious freedom is not limited to the individual dimension alone, but is attained within one’s community and in society, in a way consistent with the relational being of the person and the public nature of religion.”

This is an essential point. Religion has a necessary public dimension. This is the point made just a few moments ago by the foreign minister, when he said that there must not only be a freedom to believe, but a freedom to practise.

Religious liberty includes much more than just the freedom to worship, especially if that is understood as a mere subset of one’s right to freedom of expression. Religious liberty is exercised both individually and in common, and includes the freedom to build and operate all the institutions of religion — internal governance, schools and universities, hospitals and clinics, orphanages, welfare agencies and cultural initiatives. Religious freedom must never be reduced to freedom of worship alone, as totalitarian regimes attempt to do. Canada has the opportunity to defend this robust concept of religious liberty, especially in the current moment, when, in particular, the current American administration is using the narrower and impoverished language of freedom of worship alone.

Canada is perhaps uniquely situated to advocate for religious liberty in international relations. It would be a most worthy goal for our foreign policy.

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