The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) today (May 14, 2012) released a pastoral letter on freedom of conscience and religion. Issued by the CCCB Permanent Council, the letter expresses concern about an “aggressive relativism” in Canada that seeks to relegate religion to the private sphere.

“Legitimate secularity draws a distinction between religion and politics, between Church and state,” the pastoral letter states, but is open to the engagement of religious beliefs and faith communities in public debate and civic life. “Radical secularism”, however, excludes religion from the public square “and from freely engaging in the public debate necessary for shaping civic life.”

 Archbishop Richard Smith, president of the CCCB, spoke about the letter at his annual breakfast with Edmonton journalists on Monday.

"Today, communities of faith throughout the world are experiencing a worrisome erosion of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, " he said. "There are even numerous distressing attacks on both these intimately related freedoms. Sometimes this happens by overt violence. Sometimes it involves more subtle means that limit the respect owed to the conscience of each person, or inhibit the right of all religions, or of their individual believers, to live their faith publicly and to follow the dictates of a well-formed conscience.

"The Bishops of Canada are very concerned about encroachments on freedom of conscience and on the free practice of religion, both internationally and in our own country. Not only are Christians now the most persecuted group in the world, but even here in Canada we see a tendency to limit freedom of religion to a narrow concept of freedom of private worship, while at the same time limiting public expressions of religion. This narrowing is a violation of, and a threat to, the inherent rights possessed by everyone. Freedom of conscience is the right of each human person to “act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1782). Freedom of religion flows from freedom of conscience, and gives it communal and social expression. These two interrelated rights are not something given by the state, but an inherent part of our common human nature.

"This is why the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is releasing its Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion. The letter explains that these freedoms are essential to the common good of countries such as Canada where diversity is the norm.

"The pastoral letter, addressed to everyone of good will, calls on Catholics, all believers, and even those of no faith

  1. to affirm the right of religion to be active in the public square
  2. to maintain healthy Church-State relations
  3. to form consciences according to objective truth, and
  4. to protect the right to conscientious objection.

The letter also encourages all faith communities to contribute to the formulation of public policy and the common good, and concludes by exhorting believers not to compromise their convictions, but to stand up for their faith, even if they must suffer for it."