The Catholic Church holds the right to religious freedom in the highest regard. This right is not just one more among what appears to be an ever-growing list of rights, but rather is the most fundamental of all freedoms. That is because the right to religious liberty is grounded in the nature of the human person as a being radically oriented toward the transcendent. The denial of the right to religious freedom is an assault on the dignity of the person.
This right is different from the right to freedom of individual conscience and it does not absolve individuals of their responsibility to seek ultimate truth. On the contrary, it protects that responsibility.
It is no coincidence that totalitarian regimes, such as those of the former Soviet bloc, made the elimination of organized religion their first priority. They knew religion protects the zone of freedom of conscience more than any other institution. That zone of conscience is the largest barrier to governments who want to mould the human being in their own image.
Some have dismissed the Harper government's promise to establish within the Department of Foreign Affairs a Canadian office for religious freedom with its own ambassador as a bit of election froth aimed at firming up support among evangelical Christians. Radical secularists have strongly opposed this promise.
Instead, the office would be a visible sign that Canada supports this most basic freedom. It would also be a vehicle for educating Canadians on the amount of religious persecution that exists in the world as well as the vast contributions of religiously-motivated people to the common good.
Too often, religion is portrayed as an outdated relic from a superstitious past that today blocks the road of material progress and is frequently a source of societal friction and violence. Although there are elements of truth in that picture, it is a highly-skewed one that fails to do justice to the fact that religions are the source of most of that which is good and honourable.
In a statement issued in May 2012, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops urged all Canadians to reaffirm their commitment to the rights of conscience and religious freedom. They listed many threats to those freedoms, both in Canada and abroad. They noted that more than 70 per cent of the world's nations use legal and administrative means to bar religious minorities from exercising their God-given rights. (The full text of the letter is at www.cccb.ca.)
A Canadian ambassador for religious freedom would not eliminate the assaults on religious freedom, either at home or abroad, but he or she would be an important voice in defence of a most sacred right that is increasingly under threat.