Archbishop Richard Smith

Archbishop Richard Smith

August 20, 2012

The president of the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops has called aggressive secularism "hostile to a truly democratic and pluralist society."

In a speech Aug. 7 at the supreme convention of the Knights of Columbus in Anaheim, Calif., Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith also defended religious freedom and conscience rights.

"These freedoms are not granted by the state, society or any human authority, but belong to all people by virtue of their humanity," Smith told the gathering of 2,000 knights from all over the world.

"For this reason, when these freedoms are disregarded or repressed, the human person – and therefore human society – suffers."

He called for believers to "stand up for their faith, even if they must suffer for it."

"Freedom of conscience is necessary for seeking the truth and adhering to the truth," he said. "Freedom of religion is not merely the right to freedom of worship; it includes the right to live out one's faith in the public square."

Smith praised the "impressive and courageous leadership" of the bishops and faithful in the United States in response to the Obama administration's requirement that charitable and religious organizations pay for health insurance that covers sterilization and birth control even if it goes against their teachings.

The archbishop also referred to the CCCB's recent pastoral letter on religious freedom.

That letter, he said, was prompted by violent attacks on Christians in many parts of the world and, in Canada, by the presence of "an aggressive relativism that actively seeks to force its own view of truth on others."

"It attempts to relegate religious belief to the private sphere, and considers religion to be insignificant, alien or even destabilizing," he said.

There is a legitimate form of secularism, he said, which is open to religious beliefs and faith communities having a role in public debate and civic life.

"Radical secularism, however, excludes religion from the public square," Smith said.

He called it a "disfigured view of the secular" that tries to silence religious believers and is "highly hostile" to a true democratic and pluralist society.

Radical secularism "tolerates only its own voice and tries to silence all others," especially on issues of education, human life and the family.

"On an issue of such fundamental importance we must not fail to be vocal," he said. "It is not just a Catholic issue, but impacts the lives of all believers and even those of no faith."

The archbishop said there is a clear need across North America to affirm the rights of religion in the public square and to defend the rights of individuals and institutions to act according to their beliefs.

Smith expressed his esteem for the Knights of Columbus' witness in the public square.