The Roman Catholic Bishops of Canada have recently published a pastoral letter.
The Bishops begin by writing that “We are writing this pastoral letter to men and women of good will because of our conviction that religious believers can enrich society with their innumerable contributions to culture, political and economic life, health care and education.” I share the Bishops’ conviction.
The Bishops go on to say that “freedom of religion… implies the ability to embrace and openly practice one’s faith, both individually and communally, within society. It is directly related to freedom of conscience inasmuch as conscience, oriented to truth, is formed by religious faith.” I agree with the Bishops, at the same time raising a caution.
There are three problems with attributing truth to religious faith.
The first is that some “religions” are created by frauds in order to dupe others, or they are created by malevolent people in order to ensnare others.
The second problem is that while great and enduring religions may be “oriented to truth”, their orientation may be way off base from time to time. This has certainly been the experience of the Roman Catholic Church, as in the case of Galileo. There are good Catholics who believe, today, that the Church is off base with respect to the role of women, gender assignment and sexual orientation, and other issues.
This raises a third problem that comes with attributing truth to religious faith. Sometimes the institutions of a Church hold to a very different understanding of ‘truth’ than do the parishioners in the pews. And then, not every church has a hierarchical organization: not every church would place “truth” with the clergy alone, rather than with the congregants as well as the clergy.
For all of these reasons, in a civil democracy, freedom of religion is not conceived of as unrestricted, and it is not unrestricted in law or in practice. In Canada, as elsewhere, there are limits on religious freedom and the limits — including any restatements of them — are matters difficult to debate, difficult to decide, and fraught with political tensions (and even dangers). But from time to time we must have the debate. As the Bishops themselves say, quoting the Pontifical Council: “believers also need to recognize that “just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good.”
So far, our limits have relied on a solid framework. We can distinguish between what is done, on the one hand, in the public sphere but as a private person, and what is done, on the other hand, in the public sphere by someone whose role is as the voice, hands, or feet of the public in service to others of the public.
We allow individuals to say things in the public square that we would not allow a teacher representative of the whole community to say in a public school classroom. We allow a doctor who operates outside medicare to withhold a service although the withholding would be unacceptable if the doctor were receiving public funds. We allow clergy to decline to officiate at a religious ceremony uniting two people, although we would not allow a Marriage Commissioner, representing civil society, to refuse to officiate at a civil ceremony that embodies civil law.
The Bible says that we should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The corollary is that when a citizen represents Caesar, as an agent of the public, in the performance of a public act, Caesar’s rules apply.
This raises the question of the unjust law or, more difficult, the public policy which a citizen (or the citizen’s Church leaders) believes is morally wrong. Assuming that a matter of conscience separates a faithful believer from the law or policy of his civil community, what is he or she to do?
In a civil democratic society, we acknowledge and respect at least two honourable courses of action. The first is to resign, withdraw from the position in which one finds conflict of conscience. Cabinet Ministers and others have resigned from office. (Admittedly, that doesn’t happen often these days, but it is there for the person of conscience.) Conscientious objectors may be excused from military service, but if they join the army they must accept the terms of its discipline.
The second course of action is to engage in civil disobedience, a concept that is widely misunderstood these days. Civil disobedience is not premised on people breaking the law in secret, or publicly breaking with law and continuing, with immunity and with impunity. Civil disobedience is premised on people breaking the law in very public fashion, and accepting the consequences in the hope that public reaction will subsequently force a change in the law or the public policy. The Bishops write: “We recommend the following … to our fellow citizens: … protect the right to conscientious objection.” But conscientious objection without being willing to pay the price is mere theatrics. The Bishops may wish to go further. They may wish to advocate civil disobedience. (One of the most listened to songs on my iPhone is “Have you been to jail for justice?” sung by Peter, Paul and Mary.)
The Bishops express concern that “when it (freedom of religion) is threatened, all other rights are weakened and society suffers.” I understand their concern, but I would word the sentiment somewhat differently. Freedoms are constantly threatened. Threats alone do not weaken society, weak responses to threats weaken society. Threats may strengthen society, if the response is wise (imaginative, creative, and inclusive), strong, flexible, and mindful of posterity.
To put it another way, religious freedom is just as threatened by religious license as it is by religious oppression. Religious freedom, like every other freedom, exists and is strong when it is in tension with other rights and responsibilities.
The Bishops are right to express concern about freedom of religion and conscience. As a community, we should always be concerned about our freedoms, and our responsibilities. The Bishops are right to acknowledge “just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good”: this is the role of civil society.
Beyond that, it seems that some readers have read too much into the Pastoral Letter. The Bishops do not say that freedom of religion and conscience are absolute, and they certainly don’t say that it should be religious teachings that determine the boundaries (see above).
One very appropriate boundary for civil society to enforce is that, when a person of faith undertakes a position that represents the public to any citizen, the person of faith must represent the public fully and generously. If that is not possible, freedom of religion and conscience simply provides that the person is free to withdraw from the role, or free to challenge the role and face the civil consequences.