Bishop's Blog

Freedom of Religion

In the comic strip, The Wizard of Id by Parker and Hart:

The King addressing the populace from the turret of the castle says: "You're violating the separation of church and state."

One of the crowd shouts back : "what does that mean?"

The King responds: "I dunno. It's just something we always say."

Whereupon, the Wizard going into the bar says: "Gimme three bourbons and a tankard of ale." The Bartender asks: "What's wrong?"

The Wizard replies: "I've just finished reading the constitution 15 times!"

The Lawyer with his big top hat is also at the bar and says: "And?..."

The Wizard announces: "I can't find the phrase 'separation of church and state' anywhere!"

The Lawyer sips his tankard of ale and says: "that's cause it don't exist!"

Upset, the Wizard exclaims: "Don't exist?"

Then he continues: "You lawyers slather it about like it's pure doctrine!"

The others in the bar all resoundingly join in the chorus: "Yeah!"

The Lawyer with his cane is preparing to leave and his parting shot is: "So? Would you guys like the king running your church?"

The concept of separation of church and state is relatively recent, dating back to the Constitution of the State of Virginia, written by Thomas Jefferson, and the slightly later First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which states that: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or preventing the free exercise thereof...".

Note that nothing is said concerning the various churches' positions, it simply limits the government from establishing one or another church as the "official" religion.

Canada does not have an equivalent governing statement, either in the British North America Act or in the Constitution Act of 1982. What Canada does guarantee every one of its citizens is "freedom of religion". Article 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of religion and conscience....."

In Canada, freedom of religion means the numerous churches and religious bodies of our country are free to speak about what our governments do or fail to do.

Regrettably, there is widespread confusion about what a "right" is. Does the state confer rights upon us? Are they God-given? What is the good that they serve? Human liberty? Human dignity? And finally, what are our rights?

Modern "rights talk" asserts that the foremost right is liberty and, apart from harming others, we believe our liberty to pursue our own concept of the good should be unfettered. In the modern view, rights secure our liberties; the ultimate goal is for each of us to do what we want, when we want, as long as we do no harm to others.

It is frequently forgotten that "rights language" can impoverish our moral discourse. It reduces all moral claims to claims of justice. Other entire spheres of moral discourse are forgotten, e.g. virtue, duty, doing God's will, natural law, commandments, etc.

The Church's use of "rights language" differs considerably from modern "rights talk."

The Church is careful to indicate that it understands rights to be grounded in human dignity, in the nature of the human person, which encompasses more than the person's status as a free creature. Such a grounding is essential, for it prevents the irresponsible proliferation of rights that are grounded only in our needs or desires. It combats the lethal modern tendency to enshrine inauthentic exercises of liberty into rights.

The tethering of rights language to traditional moral terminology makes it impossible, for instance, that one could have a "right" to do something at odds with human nature and the dignity of the human person or to do something in violation of the commandments.

If rights are rooted in the dignity of the human person, a dignity bestowed upon the human person by God, then from this perspective, it could be said: that there is no right to have to have an abortion. Nor is there a right of couples in same-sex unions to marry.

One cannot invent a meaning of sexuality to suit one's wish or taste. It independently carries its own gravitational weight, inner meaning and social purpose. Its very nature is what determines the moral assessment of human sexual expression within marriage and outside it.

The dignity of the human person lies in his ability to understand that the good he is to do freely is indeed a good for him. For a human to do good out of fear or coercion is not to do good in a human and meritorious way. Human dignity lies in the ability to do what is good, freely.

What is ultimately good for the human person is a proper relationship with God. Man is to worship God freely. Thus the Church places such an enormous emphasis on the importance of conscience because conscience is properly allied not with radical autonomy but with the freedom to worship.

Freedom of conscience and of religion is a primary and inalienable right of the human person. Insofar as it touches the innermost sphere of the spirit, one can even say that it upholds the justification, deeply rooted in each individual, of all other liberties. Of course, such freedom can only be exercised in a responsible way, that is, in accordance with ethical principles.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

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"Soul Searching"

Each year the bishops of Western Canada gather for a post-Christmas retreat at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. "to fan into a flame the gift of God that (we) possess through the laying on of hands" [2 Tim1:6].

This year we took as our theme the Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II, The Bishop, Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World.

It's more than a little disconcerting to read that: "The building up of the flock of Christ in truth and holiness demands of the bishop certain characteristics which include an exemplary life, the ability to enter into authentic and constructive relation-ships with others, an aptitude for encouraging and developing co-operation, an innate goodness and patience, an understanding of and compassion for those suffering in body and spirit, and a spirit of tolerance and forgiveness. What is needed is in fact an ability to emulate as well as possible the supreme model, which is Jesus the Good Shepherd."

These words reminded me of a meeting that I once had with the members of a parish pastoral council informing me of the type of pastor that they thought ought to be assigned to their parish.

They presented me with a printed copy of their expectations.

  • A priest who has a fully developed spiritual life. One who cares deeply about his vocation, is willing to be available and present to the needs of our people, who is willing to use others' gifts and talents, one who is especially sensitive to women, and the involvement of women, our youth minister, and our various committees.
  • A person of broad scope and vision, who is knowledgeable in systematic, pastoral and aesthetical theology. One who displays competence in addictions intervention, age-appropriate education, the process of the Rites of Christian Initiation and hospice care.
  • A person who is emotionally stable, able to deal with criticism in a constructive manner and who has strong appreciation of and respect for other Christian denominations with-out in any way compromising those beliefs and practices that are uniquely Catholic.

After a moment or two of silent reflection on their list I said: "I only know two people that can fulfil this job description: myself and Jesus, and I'm not too sure about Jesus." These days I have much more confidence in Jesus than myself.

It is much easier to identify with Peter the Apostle, and exclaim: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." However, the Master in his mercy continues to say: "Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching people."

Spiritual realism demands that all of us live out our vocation to holiness in a context of difficulties within and without, amidst our own weakness and those of others, in daily contingencies and personal and institutional problems.

This entails prayerfully pondering the mystery of Christ and his Church in its openness to the world and our own vocation.

In his touching dialogue after the Resurrection, before entrusting him with the mandate to care for his flock, the Master asks the embarrassing question: "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" It is easy to understand the humble tone of his reply: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." And it is on the basis of this love, which knows all too well its own frailty, a love professed with both trust and hesitation, that Peter receives the commission: "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep."

The commission opens up a world of wonder and blessing. It's hard to describe what it's like to sit in a confessional and be the instrument of reconciliation in the midst of some one's pain and alienation; or what it's like to witness the marriage of young love and help to seal that sacrament of marriage with the blessing of the Church; or what it's like to baptize an infant and dream the possibilities that life holds.

There are also the graces of spiritual direction, the power of preaching, and the utter satisfaction and humble joy that takes hold when I witness someone's life turn around as a result of God working through me.

This commission, however, doesn't solve all of the problems. St. Gregory the Great put it this way: "After having laid upon my heart the burden of the pastoral office, my spirit has become incapable of frequent recollection, because it remains divided among many things. I am obliged to judge the cases of Churches and monasteries; often I am called to involved myself in the lives and actions of individuals ... and so with my mind pulled and torn, forced to think of so many things when can it recollect itself and concentrate totally on preaching ... "

A retreat is a time to confront our innate restlessness, recognizing the truth expressed by St. Augustine, "Oh God, our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

It is also a time to ponder a new the free gift of God's love and to ask oneself again the hard questions: Is the Kingdom of God really the "one pearl" and the "treasure in the field" for which everything else is to be sacrificed? What has really mattered in the past year? To what have I given my life? With whom have I cast my lot? Whom have I loved - really loved?

I'm not sure much else matters, so I resolve to follow Paul's advice to Timothy: "Refute falsehood, correct error, give encouragement - but do all with patience and with care to instruct ... put up with suffering; do the work of preaching the gospel; fulfil the service asked of you" [2 Tim. 4:2, 5].

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

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