Pharmacists face threats to violate their consciences by being forced to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or the 'morning after' pill, say Canada's Catholic Bishops.
Catholics have an obligation to oppose unjust laws even if it means making heroic sacrifices, say Canada's Catholic bishops.
Following one's conscience may make it necessary to resist the orders of a state, court or other body that tries to force a person to act against his or her convictions in faith or morals, the bishops say in their new Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion.
"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," says the letter issued by the permanent council of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops May 14.
The bishops say that, for example, Catholics must never support the legal right to abortion or euthanasia.
In an accompanying statement, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, president of the CCCB, says the letter is being released now because of "a worrisome erosion of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion."
The CCCB letter makes "a pressing appeal for freedom" of religion - what it calls "the most meaningful freedom of all" and the cornerstone of the structure of human rights and a free society.
"Religious believers should be allowed to express their religious identity publicly, free from any pressure to hide or disguise it."
In Canada, it continues, believers are sometimes compelled to exercise their profession in opposition to their religious and moral concerns.
Pharmacists are sometimes forced to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or the "morning after" pill despite their own convictions; physicians who oppose abortion are sometimes forced to refer patients to another physician who is willing to carry out the abortion; marriage commissioners in four provinces must either carry out same-sex marriages or resign.
The bishops also express concern that often advocacy groups use provincial human rights tribunals "to promote new individual 'rights' which often take precedence over the common good."
The document says, "Recent international and national events present a disturbing trend of threats to freedom of conscience and religion experienced by those who suffer from bias, prejudice, hate propaganda, discrimination and persecution because of their religious beliefs."
WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Archbishop Richard Smith addresses the Edmonton media on May 14.
It notes that, according to the organization Aid to the Church in Need, 75 per cent of all religious persecution is directed against Christians.
Incidents such as the massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the bombing of churches in Nigeria, and the execution of converts to Christianity in Afghanistan and Iran are among several international concerns that the letter cites.
The bishops call on all Canadians, especially Catholics, "to respond courageously to the challenges to freedom of conscience and religion." They should participate actively in every sector of public life and make their views known when public policies and opinions are being shaped.
Many threats to religious freedom "arise from the cultural predominance of radical secularism" and even "a subliminal relativism" that prevails in society, they say.
Quoting Pope Benedict, they say, "Sometimes this relativism becomes aggressive when it opposes those who say they know where the truth of meaning of life is to be found."
Freedom of religion involves more than the right to worship free from external coercion. It also includes parents' right to educate their children according to their religious convictions and to choose schools which provide that formation, they say.
Believers must also be permitted to communicate their beliefs to others, to play a role in the formation of public policy and "to set the qualifications judged necessary for running their own institutions."
The state, the bishops say, must acknowledge and respect the free exercise of religious belief; it does not have the authority to grant that right.
The bishops also challenge the view that conscience is an absolute that is higher than the truth. Rather, conscience is oriented to the truth.
"Freedom of conscience is justified because of this relation (to objective truth) inasmuch as this freedom is a necessary condition for seeking the truth and for adhering to that truth once it is sufficiently known."
Religious beliefs are never to be imposed on others, they say. Individuals and cultures must always be respected.
(The full text of the Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion is available at www.cccb.ca.)