Canada's Catholic bishops have made an important contribution to Catholic self-understanding and to public debate with their Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion, issued May 14.
We should not expect, however, that because the bishops have brought clarity to this discussion, secular society will immediately recognize the rights to religious freedom and conscientious objection. As the bishops note, quoting Pope Benedict, there is "a subliminal relativism" widespread in Western society that will not be easily overcome.
Secular liberalism sees all of this, as The New York Times expressed in a Feb. 11 editorial, as simply "a phony crisis over religious liberty engendered by the right." The secularist blindly fails to see his or her own assumptions about the nature of the human person and the nature of a free society.
North American secularism incorrectly assumes that it is value neutral, that any fair, reasonable person would accept its understanding of human rights and the law. In fact, the secularist idea is grounded in a notion of the human person as an autonomous being with no duty to seek goodness and moral truth. It is openly skeptical of any notion of objective moral truth and treats any assertion of the existence of such truth as "a phony crisis . . . engendered by the right."
Likewise, the secularist, to the extent that he or she admits the existence of a common good, sees it in terms of the desires of the greatest number of people within society.
The bishops clearly link conscience to the search for truth; conscience is not a subjective desire indifferent to truth. Any notion of conscience and human rights indifferent to moral truth and the truth about the human person is on the fast track to what Pope Benedict earlier labelled "the dictatorship of relativism."
This "dictatorship" sees it as the duty of the state to overturn regulations set by religious groups that limit the exercise of personal autonomy. This is evident in the United States with the Obama administration's insistence that Catholic institutions provide contraceptives as part of employee health care plans. It was also apparent in denials of the right to conscientious objection during the recent Alberta election.
What is the truth of the human person? The truth is that human person has a transcendent dignity - every person has an innate openness to God and a natural desire and personal obligation to seek transcendent truth.
Because of that transcendent dignity, individuals have a right to conscientious objection and to practise their religion. Western society, meanwhile, if it is to be truly free, must overcome its shrivelled understanding of the human person as most free when the person is indifferent to truth and goodness.