The statement addresses the "disturbing trend" of threats to freedom of conscience and religion at an international and national level.
It speaks of the threats to freedom "experienced by those who suffer from bias, prejudice, hate propaganda, discrimination and persecution because of their religious beliefs."
"The Catholic Church fosters and defends these freedoms which are grounded in Sacred Scripture and supported by rational reflection. In championing them, she finds common ground with everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation," the bishops affirm. The letter frequently recalls that the appeal to defend religious freedom is not directed only to religious believers, but to all citizens, as the violation of this freedom affects everyone.
The bishops explain the distinction between freedom of conscience and the broader freedom of religion.
They clarify: "Like religion itself, religious freedom has a personal, individual dimension, but it also has a communitarian, public dimension. Since human beings think, act and communicate through their relationships with others, this freedom is expressed through concrete actions, whether individual or collective, both in religious communities and in society at large. Believers must therefore be allowed to play their part in formulating public policy and in contributing to society as a way of living their faith in daily practice. When this right is truly acknowledged, religious communities and institutions can operate freely for the betterment of society through initiatives in the social, charitable, health care, and educational sectors, which benefit all citizens, especially the poorest and most marginalized. Furthermore, religious freedom entails the right of religious communities to set the qualifications judged necessary for those running their own institutions."
The Canadian prelates also clarify that the Church's defense of religious freedom in no way seeks an imposition of beliefs on others.
"We are never to impose our religious beliefs on others, but always to respect individuals and cultures, honouring the sanctuary of conscience," they write. "The dignity of the
human person demands respect for conscience, because it is 'the most secret core and the sanctuary of the human person. There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths.' It is a violation of freedom of conscience for anyone to attempt to impose his or her own understanding of the truth on others. The right to profess the truth must always be upheld, but never in a way which involves contempt for those who think differently."
The pastoral letter addresses concerns ranging from the prevalence of anti-Christian persecution internationally, to local issues such as pharmacists required to prescribe abortifacients, or marriage commissioners asked to officiate at same-sex unions.
The bishops speak of a "legitimate secularity" in the right separation of Church and state.
"As Catholic Bishops, we feel a pressing obligation to raise our voice in the defence of the human dignity of all persons, especially religious minorities, and their God-given right to freedom of conscience and religion," they write in the conclusion. "At this challenging time, we urgently appeal to all Canadians, whether religious believers or not, to reaffirm their commitment to the promotion of the precious rights of freedom of conscience and religion."
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