May 21, 2012

EDMONTON – Discussion of the rights of conscience in last month's Alberta election campaign was overly truncated, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith told local media May 14.

"I was glad that it was going to get discussed, but somehow it didn't really get discussed. I found that disappointing," Smith said at his annual breakfast session with the media at St. Joseph Seminary.

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith expressed support for conscience rights during the campaign, a view Premier Alison Redford denounced as "frightening."

Critics of conscience rights fear that recognition of conscience rights could lead to women not having access to abortions they desire or to homosexuals not being able to find a marriage commissioner to formalize their same-sex "marriage."

Society, the archbishop said, needs to examine what is meant by conscience rights.

Archbishop Smith said opponents of conscience rights believe that a right to conscientious objection means discrimination against a person.

Conscience rights and discrimination are "two very different things," he said. "It's not a judgment against a person."

Conscience objection involves a judgment that the objective order of morality is being violated, he said.

For example, a marriage commissioner opposed to same-sex marriage would like also oppose marriages between siblings or between a parent and a child if those possibilities were to be legalized.

The archbishop said the term "conscience" is often not properly understood. "In the public view, conscience seems to be at the level of subjective feeling - 'whatever I feel is the right thing to do.'"

However, it should be seen as "the human capacity to discern what is morally obligatory in accordance with objective moral truth."

The idea of objective moral truth is itself under fire in our age of relativism, he said. "People say, 'I have my truth and you have yours.'"

Moral truth, he said, is real just as are physical laws of nature, such as gravity.

Even if people express moral relativism, they "instinctively understand" objective moral truths such as that it is wrong to kill innocent people, he said.

In their May 14 Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion, the Canadian bishops said the right to freedom of conscience is justified because of the relationship of conscience to moral truth.

For Archbishop Smith, our ability to live together as a society means that such a fundamental right is honoured and doesn't get trampled.

The discussion of the issue during the Alberta election campaign was too brief, he said. "It left me wanting to have more conversation about it."