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Pastoral letter on freedom of conscience and religion

on Wednesday, 01 August 2012. Posted in Encyclical letters & Other documents of the Magisterium

Pastoral letter

On May 14, 2012, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) 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 in the private sphere. Here are large excerpts from this letter:


A pressing appeal for freedom

We are writing this pastoral letter to men and women of good will because of our conviction that religious believers can enrich society with their innumerable contributions to culture, political and economic life, health care and education. In solidarity with our brothers and sisters, we are called to renew our commitment to building a world where every individual, every community of faith, and every society enjoys in law and in practice authentic freedom of conscience and religion. (...)

We affirm what Pope Benedict XVI states in his Message for the 2011 World Day of Peace: “It is painful to think that in some areas of the world it is impossible to profess one’s religion freely except at the risk of life and personal liberty. In other areas we see more subtle and sophisticated forms of prejudice and hostility towards believers and religious symbols.”1


Our freedom of conscience and religion

While freedom of conscience belongs essentially to individuals, freedom of religion is broader: it implies the ability to embrace and openly practice one’s faith, both individually and communally, within society. It is directly related to freedom of conscience inasmuch as conscience, oriented to truth, is formed by religious faith. 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.2” Indeed, the right to religious freedom is “the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights.3” 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. (...)

Conceded neither by the state nor by society, the freedoms of conscience and religion are inalienable and universal. Religious freedom is “the most profound expression of freedom of conscience.4” Furthermore, the right to freedom of religion is pre-eminent “not only because it was historically the first to be recognized but also because it touches the constitutive dimension of man, his relation with his Creator.5” Our respect for every person’s attempt to search for the truth demands that we must “safeguard the fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, as the cornerstones of the structure of human rights and the foundation of every truly free society.”6


What religious freedom entails

Every individual has the “the right to be able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his conscience.”7 Other people, as well as civil society, have the corresponding duty to respect the free spiritual development of each person.8

Besides being free from external coercion, every one must be able freely to exercise the right to choose, profess, disseminate, and practice his or her own religion in private and in public. This includes the freedom for parents to educate their children in their religious convictions and to choose the schools which provide that formation. Moreover, the state has the obligation to protect this right by means of a legal and administrative framework and to create a suitable environment where it can be enjoyed.

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. (...)


Guaranteed by law

The preamble of our national Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) affirms that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” It then sets out that each citizen has certain fundamental freedoms, placing “freedom of conscience and religion” at the top of the list (Article 2). The state acknowledges and respects – it does not grant – the free exercise of religious belief. As Canadians we possess the right to freedom of conscience and religion, which entails freedom from coercion as well as the right to express publicly and disseminate freely our religious beliefs in accordance with the common good. (...)


Contemporary concerns

Unfortunately, religious freedom is far from being effectively guaranteed everywhere. Sometimes it is denied for religious or ideological reasons. At other times, although it may be recognized in law, it is hindered in practice by a legal system or social order which enforces strict control, if not a monopoly, over society.

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.

More subtle threats to religious freedom arise from the cultural predominance of radical secularism and “a subliminal relativism that penetrates every area of life. Sometimes this relativism becomes aggressive when it opposes those who say they know where the truth or meaning of life is to be found.”9 Paradoxically, this relativism often posits the absolute relativity of all knowledge and meaning and then seeks to impose this absolutism on others, often in violation of conscience and religious belief. Whenever and wherever the right of freedom of conscience and religion is endangered, we are obliged to express our objections with clarity and courage, especially in cases involving the persecution of religious minorities.


International concerns

Aid to the Church in Need, in its Religious Freedom in the World – Report 2010, states a very troubling fact about the current international situation: today 75 percent of all religious persecution is directed against Christians. The Pope has written bluntly in this regard: “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.”10 Besides Christians, members of other religious bodies often experience violent attacks or discrimination in numerous countries, especially where they are a minority.

Among other incidents and situations, we have recently witnessed the massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt; the bombing of churches in Nigeria; the systematic interference in ecclesial affairs by Chinese authorities; the call for the execution of converts to Christianity in Afghanistan and Iran; the consequences of the law against blasphemy in Pakistan; the measures taken against gynaecologists and obstetricians in some European countries which compel them, against their conscience, to screen unborn children for Down Syndrome in order to abort them; and the “attack on the religious freedom of families in certain European countries which mandate obligatory participation in courses of sexual or civic education which allegedly convey a neutral conception of the person and of life, yet in fact reflect an anthropology opposed to faith and to right reason.”11


Concerns in our own nation

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. (...)


A call to engage our freedom

We call on all Canadians, especially the Catholic faithful, to respond courageously to the challenges to freedom of conscience and religion by renewing their determination to participate actively in every sector of public life and to make their views known where public policies and opinions are being shaped. In this way, they can witness to the truth and promote the common good by infusing a religious perspective into our cultural, social, political and economic institutions. Canada “needs lay Christians able to assume roles of leadership in society. It is urgent to train men and women who, in keeping with their vocation, can influence public life, and direct it to the common good.”12.

The right of citizens to participate fully as believers needs to be constantly upheld. We recommend the following four actions to our fellow citizens: affirm the rightful role of religion in the public square; uphold a healthy relationship between Church and state; form conscience according to truth; and protect the right to conscientious objection.


Affirming the rightful role of religion in the public square

Less evident than the violent persecution of believers is what Pope Benedict XVI refers to as the “systematic denigration of religious beliefs”13, in many parts of the world. For radical secularists, all expressions of religious belief must be relegated to the private sphere; they seek to deny religion any influence on society. Even in countries which acknowledge the value of pluralism and tolerance, religion is increasingly marginalized, confined to homes and churches, and considered to be insignificant, alien or even destabilizing to society.

A sign of this marginalization of religion, and of Christianity in particular, is “the banning of religious feasts and symbols from civic life under the guise of respect for the members of other religions or those who are not believers. By acting in this way, not only is the right of believers to the public expression of their faith restricted, but an attack is made on the cultural roots which nourish the profound identity and social cohesion of many nations.”14 We all need to be vigilant in preserving, in a respectful manner, the religious symbols and celebrations which express the particular spiritual heritage of nations shaped in the crucible of Christianity.

Forcing religious believers to keep their convictions to themselves, while atheists and agnostics are under no such restriction is, in fact, an expression of religious intolerance. This is no way to achieve social harmony among citizens in a free and democratically plural society. Such an approach of forced “privacy of religion” is a thinly veiled way of curbing the freedom of religious believers to express their convictions publicly.

Attempts to limit expressions of religious faith to places of worship and to certain initiatives for social justice should be judged as a serious curtailment of a guaranteed right. To act and speak out publicly as a committed Christian in one’s professional life has never been more necessary. When many would like to exclude religious believers from full participation in society’s fundamental institutions is precisely the time to claim the right to do so. (...)


Forming conscience according to truth

The right to act according to one’s conscience must therefore be accompanied by accepting the duty to conform it to the truth and to the law which God has engraved on our hearts (cf. Rm 2.15). Cardinal Newman’s words remain forever valid: “Conscience has its rights because it has its duties,”15 the primary of which is obedience to the truth. Every individual has the serious responsibility to form his or her own conscience in the light of that objective truth which everyone can come to know.

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.16 A free society like Canada must always guarantee the right of parents to educate their children in matters of faith and morals, and thus to ensure the formation of their conscience. Such formation is never morally indifferent, even if some claim it to be neutral regarding moral and religious principles. (...)


Saint Thomas MooreProtecting the right to conscientious objection

For individuals who wish to follow and act in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, it is sometimes necessary to resist, even in a heroic manner, the directives of the state, a court, or an organization that tries to force them to go against their convictions in matters of faith and morals. In these instances, freedom of conscience means that the person has the right to follow, according to the awareness of his or her duty, the will of God and his law.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states this obligation unambiguously: “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).”17

For example, it is never licit for a Catholic to support the legal right to abortion or euthanasia. In fact, abortion and euthanasia are “crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.”18 Since it is an expression of freedom of conscience, this right to conscientious objection should be protected in law for those in any profession where the essential principles of the natural moral law are violated “in a serious or repeated manner.”19

Asserting one’s right to conscientious objection is often difficult. It entails courageously resisting those who favour or require an action contrary to one’s conscience.Those who will not cooperate with the requirements of an immoral law must be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to uphold the truth and to bear the suffering that results. “Indeed, faced with the many difficulties which fidelity to the moral order can demand, even in the most ordinary circumstances, the Christian is called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic commitment.”20

Especially inspiring as a model of steadfast fidelity is St. Thomas More, the patron of statesmen and politicians. His reluctant yet willing martyrdom bore witness to the fact that “conscience is not identical to personal wishes and taste; [it] cannot be reduced to social advantage, to group consensus or to the demands of political and social power.”21 Though subjected to various forms of psychological pressure, he refused to compromise his convictions. By his life and the manner of his death he testifies to the primacy of conscience by acting uprightly and without compromise in social and political affairs.22

The Church’s vitality has often been nourished by persecution. Our era is no exception. Those who refuse to cooperate with an unjust law or practice that would oblige them to act against their conscience – and are not given the right to conscientious objection or accorded respectful accommodation – must be prepared to suffer the consequences that result from fidelity to Christ. They deserve the effective solidarity and prayerful support of their religious communities.

The bold “Be not afraid!” of Blessed John Paul II continues to ring out, giving us courage to follow our conscience in every circumstance, regardless of the cost. “Don’t be afraid to give your life to Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”23 Let us cast out any fear that would prevent us from answering the urgent voice of the Holy Spirit always to act according to the dictates of an informed conscience.

The full text can be obtained on the internet by using the following link:


1.) Benedict XVI, Message for the 2011 World Day of Peace, n. 1.

2.) Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 87.

3.) Blessed John Paul II, Address to Participants in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (October 10, 2003), n. 1

4.) Blessed John Paul II, Message for the 1991 World Day of Peace, n. 5.

5.) Benedict XVI, Address to the Diplomatic Corps (January 10, 2011).

6.) Blessed John Paul II, Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization (October 5, 1995), n. 10

7.) Blessed John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, n. 14.

8.) Cf. Blessed John Paul II, Message on the Value and Content of Freedom of Conscience and of Religion (September 1, 1980), n. 2. 

9.) Benedict XVI, Address to Central Committee for German Catholics, Freiburg in Breisgau (September 24, 2011).

10.) Benedict XVI, Message for the 2011 World Day of of Peace, n. 1.

11.) Benedict XVI, Address to the Diplomatic Corps (January 10, 2011).

12.) Blessed John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, n. 44

13.) Benedict XVI, Message for the 2007 World Day of Peace, n. 5. 

14.) Benedict XVI, Address to the Diplomatic Corps (January 10, 2011)

15.) Blessed John Henry Newman, Difficulties Felt by Anglicans, vol. 2 (London, 1910), p. 250

16.) Benedict XVI, Message for the 2011 World Day of Peace, n. 4.

17.) Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2242; cf. n. 2256.

18.) Blessed John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 73.

19.) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 400. 

20.) Blessed John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 93.

21.) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Conscience and Truth, Presentation at 10th Workshop for Bishops in Dallas, Texas, 1991.

22.) Cf. Blessed John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians (31 October 2000), n. 4.

23.) Benedict XVI, Homily at Mass for the Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome (April 25, 2005).

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