The Catholic Church and Freedom of Conscience

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a 12 page letter entitled Freedom of Conscience and Religion. In it they make what they believe is a compelling case for freedom of religion, but throughout the document they conflate the freedom to practice their religion and the ‘freedom’ to impose their religion on others.

Religious freedom is the most meaningful freedom of all, “since it is through faith that men and women express their deepest decision about the ultimate meaning of their lives.” Indeed, the right to religious freedom is “the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights.” Where it is protected, peaceful coexistence, prosperity and participation in cultural, social and political life flourish. But when it is threatened, all other rights are weakened and society suffers.

Of course, what they miss is that freedom from religion is as equally important as freedom of religion. This is an important distinction as it has been in the most theologically driven states that freedom to practice your own religion, or no religion, has been the most strictly curtailed.

Conscience bears witness to the fact that people are “impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.

I would argue that conscience leads us to seek our moral obligation without giving precedence to any religious truth. Especially since the concept of ‘religious truth’ varies from religion to religion.

For this reason, each individual’s conscientious search for truth must always be respected. This freedom to respond to the truth of one’s nature as a being created by God and destined for fulfillment in him is essential to a democratic society.

Again, theocracies are never democratic.

Every individual has the “the right to be able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his conscience.” Other people, as well as civil society, have the corresponding duty to respect the free spiritual development of each person.

I can agree with this particular sentiment. It is important that followers of any particular religion do not attempt to enforce their beliefs on any other.

Like religion itself, religious freedom has a personal, individual dimension, but it also has a communitarian, public dimension. Since human beings think, act and communicate through their relationships with others, this freedom is expressed through concrete actions, whether individual or collective, both in religious communities and in society at large. Believers must therefore be allowed to play their part in formulating public policy and in contributing to society as a way of living their faith in daily practice. When this right is truly acknowledged, religious communities and institutions can operate freely for the betterment of society through initiatives in the social, charitable, health care, and educational sectors, which benefit all citizens, especially the poorest and most marginalized. Furthermore, religious freedom entails the right of religious communities to set the qualifications judged necessary for those running their own institutions.

This one needs some breaking down. We all develop our conscience through reason or our religious convictions or some combination thereof. Any statement or position we take in private as well as public life is shaped by these convictions. However, we must be able to accommodate differing beliefs and protect minorities. In the vast majority of regions throughout the history of the world, believers have shaped governmental policy. This was as true in ancient China and the Ottoman Empire as it is in today’s Kuwait, and to a lesser extent the USA. However, in most of these societies, people have not been free to practice any beliefs not sanctioned by those in power. This was never more true than in the days of the hegemony of the Catholic Church over Europe when non-believers were tortured and killed for daring to challenge that supremacy.

Again, the history of religion has not been marked with a broad charity and concern for the marginalized. Take a quick look at the scale and wealth of Catholic churches in comparison to the homes of the believers whose livelihood was tithed and blackmailed away from them. I use the term blackmail as the Church used the carrot and stick of future eternal joy or damnation as an excuse to extract these monies. The concern for the daily welfare of these people was limited. In health care, religion continues to waste resources and lives in prayer and exorcisms, resources that could better be used for medical treatments that actually work.

In education, we see the result of religious interference very strongly in the US where battles are fought over the ‘right’ to teach creation mythology over the science of evolution. We most certainly do not want our medical schools to teach prayer and exorcism over radiation treatment for cancer or psychiatric interventions for mental illness. Religion has no place in publicly funded institutions.

The Catholic Church claims the right to religious freedom in order to fulfill her specific mission. In obedience to Christ’s command (cf. Mt 28.19-20), she proposes the Gospel to all people, which she is duty bound to do, because Jesus Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14.6). All evangelization is but an effort to awaken the listener’s religious freedom to desire and embrace the saving truth of the Gospel (cf. Mk 16.15-16).

Do I  have a right to freedom from proselytization? In my school or workplace I most certainly do. In fact in any organization that is not specifically religious in origin I expect and demand that freedom. I do not want children in publicly funded schools to be subject to any religious interference. I do not want sermons at my workplace, especially one that is supported by public funds. Students at religious schools or employees of specifically religious organizations implicitly surrender that right as a condition of their enrolment or employment.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 70 percent of the world’s countries impose legal or administrative restrictions which in practice annul the rights of individual believers and religious groups. Among these restraints are the forced registration of religious groups, prohibition of conversions, restrictions on foreign missionaries, favouring one religious group over another, fines, and harassment.

They are being disingenuous here, as the Pew Report  itself cautions that it does not consider religious freedoms that preserve some religious freedom, focusing only on the curtailment of freedoms, even if justified. They use the examples of overt support of political candidates by religious organizations that have tax-free status in the US and Canada, and restrictions on cults in France, to demonstrate restrictions that are justified. For the purposes of the report, these are given equal weight as instances of total theocratic control such as exists in many Islamic countries.

“At present, Christians are the religious group which  suffers most from persecution on account of its faith. Many Christians experience daily affronts and often live in fear because of their pursuit of truth, their faith in Jesus Christ and their heartfelt plea for respect for religious freedom.” Besides Christians, members of other religious bodies often experience violent attacks or discrimination in numerous countries, especially where they are a minority.

I would argue that the countries where Christians are persecuted, are also often countries where all who do not follow the official state religion are persecuted, atheist usually fair no better. There are also examples where Christians are the persecutors. They are not the only group that suffers at the hands of the overly religious. North Korea is an example of a putatively secular state that prohibits the practice of any religion, but it could be argued that the rulers of that country are deified.

Then they bring it home to Canada.

In the past decade in Canada there have been several situations that raise the question whether our right to freedom of conscience and religion is everywhere respected. At times, believers are being legally compelled to exercise their profession without reference to their religious or moral convictions, and even in opposition to them. This occurs wherever laws, which most often deal with issues linked to the dignity of human life and the family, are promulgated and which limit the right to conscientious objection by health-care and legal professionals, educators and politicians.
For example, some colleges of physicians require that members who refuse to perform abortions refer patients to another physician willing to do so; elsewhere pharmacists are being threatened by being forced to have to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or the “morning after” pill; and marriage commissioners in British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan must now perform same sex marriages or resign.

They rightly follow this with a statement admitting that some of these are examples of conflicting rights. They maintain, however, that religious rights of conscience should override rights recognized by the state.  The examples above are of jobs or professions where an expectation of duty to state rules is expected. It is part of the profession of pharmacy to fill the prescriptions as written by the physician. Concerns about the appropriateness of prescriptions are to be taken up with the physician and not the patient. For example, is a pharmacist is convinced that a patient is possessed by a demon, should, in their right of conscience and religion prevent them from filling a prescription for a mental health drug? Should a physician who is a Jehovah’s Witness be able to refuse a blood transfusion? There are many more examples of religious beliefs that are at odds with modern medicine. Permitting such actions is the logical extensions of the stand of the Bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his recent address to the German Bundestag, “unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law.

The Church may attempt to use reason, but all of their ethics are based upon the concept of ‘revealed law’.  Their belief that the sole purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation, that marriage is a necessity for sexual acts, that an amorphous soul is infused at the moment an egg are fertilized are all based upon ‘revealed truths’. Again  it is disingenuous of them to sidestep that concept.

Where the contribution of religious believers is excluded from public life, that life is deprived of a dimension necessary to every flourishing society: an openness to transcendence.

Here is the concept that an openness to transcendence is necessary to society. This is an exclusively religious idea, and most certainly interferes with the right of freedom from religion.

Education plays a critical role in correctly forming the conscience. For this reason, “parents must always be free to transmit to their children, responsibly and without constraints, their heritage of faith.

I know of no-one in this country who would refuse parents the right to educate their children in the tenets of their faith, or lack thereof.

Parents and educators have an especially important task to fulfill in forming the consciences of the next generation in respect for their brothers and sisters of different religions. Their constant challenge is to develop in children a conscience that is truly upright and free: one that can choose what is truly good and right and thus reject what is evil. They have the duty of helping young people conform their conscience to the truth
of the moral law and to live in conformity with that truth.

Again, they are attempting to impose their concept of ‘truth’ on students in publicly funded schools. Being truly free is not the same as being indoctrinated in the ‘truth’ of any one religion.

“The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ (Mt 22.21). ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5.29)

Everyone has the right to civil disobedience, however, everyone has the responsibility to acknowledge the law of the state. The purpose of that disobedience is often an attempt to change a given law, but to expect no consequences for actions based upon religious belief is unreasonable. An example of this is the Islamic demand for death of apostates. In Canada, murder is against the law of the state.  If a person kills another based upon their most sincere beliefs, it is still a murder and punishable as such by the laws of our state. Refusing to act according to the standards of your profession based upon religious beliefs has consequences. Those consequences may be the loss of your livelihood.

We offer to all who are victims of violence, persecution, intolerance, or discrimination because of their moral or religious convictions the support of the Church’s teaching, the solidarity of our public interventions, and the assurance of our fraternal prayers for the protection of the right to freedom of conscience and religion for all people.

In this final statement, they show their true hypocrisy. They do not support the rights of people whose sexuality differs from their own concepts. They do not support the reproductive rights of women for contraception or abortion, even in cases of rape or abuse. In general, they do not support the rights of people who wish to have freedom from the religious proscriptions of the Catholic Church.

The belief of the Bishops that theirs are the only true beliefs, that those beliefs are the only source of morality, blinds them to the concept of true freedom and human rights.

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