Jacques Cartier setting up a cross at Gaspé (The New York Public Library / Art Resource, NY)
Long before a railway expanded to the west coast of Canada, the faith of the country’s early settlers and missionaries established the foundations of Canada’s current social structures. In the summer of 1534, explorer Jacques Cartier planted a 10-meter cross on Quebec soil, claiming the land for the King of France under the sign of Christ. The recent canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, recalling the witness of the Canadian martyrs, together with beautiful pilgrimage sites in Quebec, testify to the faith brought to Canadian shores centuries ago.
Today, numerous schools and hospitals founded by religious communities remain places of refuge for the faithful in a largely secular society. European immigrants who settled the prairies and raised their large Catholic families continue to root hundreds of rural communities. And even the predominantly Protestant presence in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces underscores a faith that is fundamental to public values and morality.
Despite this strong history of faith — currently 44 percent of the population is Catholic — the country has not been immune to a prevailing culture of radical secularism. “Under the pretext of the ‘separation of church and state,’ aggressive secularists insist that religion is a private matter,” explained Michèle Boulva, director of the national Catholic Organization of Life and Family (COLF), which is co-sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus. “But there should be no principle of Canadian law or theory that places the beliefs of atheists and agnostics in a superior position in the public sphere to the beliefs of religious citizens.”
Catholics find themselves increasingly challenged on some of their deeply held beliefs and freedoms, namely those of conscience and religion. “Catholics in Canada have experienced anti-Catholicism in the past, a lot of it which had to do with Protestants versus Catholics,” noted Dr. John Zucchi, chair of the history department at McGill University in Montreal. “What we see nowadays is very different — it is sinister, but often done in a genteel fashion. It is aimed at destroying religious freedom, which was not the case historically.”
THREATS TO LIBERTY
The pressures facing lay Catholics and institutions in Canada today take many forms.
Since the decriminalization of abortion in 1988, Canada has had no federal laws restricting abortion. Taxpayers pay for sterilization and abortion through publicly funded health care. Doctors who refuse to perform certain procedures are often expected by their professional associations to refer their patients to another physician. Recently, in the provinces of Quebec and British Columbia, there has been strong pressure to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia.
After the legalization of same-sex unions in 2005 by the federal Civil Marriage Act, the province of Saskatchewan refused to accommodate marriage commissioners who objected to witnessing such unions. Since that time, three other provinces have imposed the same restrictions on their commissioners. In 2005, a Knights of Columbus council in British Columbia unknowingly booked a same-sex wedding reception at its hall and was subsequently fined $2,000 for cancelling the booking. Several other cases have also accused individuals of “hate speech” in reference to stances taken against homosexuality.
More recently, the Ontario government passed the Accepting Schools Act in June, mandating that Catholic school boards allow students to set up “gay-straight alliances,” thus jeopardizing the freedom of parents and Catholic schools to favor Catholic teachings in education.
In the face of all of these difficulties, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion in the spring of 2012. The document offers a succinct catechesis on the nature and proper formation of conscience and on the freedom of religion. Explaining what motivated the bishops to issue this pastoral letter, CCCB President Archbishop Richard W. Smith of Edmonton, Alberta, contrasted the Canadian situation with the sometimes brutal attacks against Christians in other countries. “In our own country, the pressure can be a lot more subtle,” he said. “Bishops will hear from people in medical or pharmaceutical professions, for example, of feeling pressured to act contrary to their own conscience.”
Thus, the pastoral letter begins by highlighting the value of “authentic freedom of conscience and religion” for all: “We hope to rekindle in all Canadians an appreciation of the significance of these rights as essential for ensuring the common good, and to encourage our fellow citizens, especially those in professions where these rights may be at risk, to defend them courageously.”
This challenge issued by the Canadian bishops is one that the Knights of Columbus has been addressing since the first Canadian council was founded in Montreal in 1897. Today there are 1,900 councils across the country, consisting of nearly 230,000 members. Throughout Canada’s history, Knights have been a presence supporting the Church and promoting the common good through charitable works, patriotism and political advocacy defending the right to life and the sanctity of marriage. With these initiatives, the Order is building upon a heritage rich in faith.
Each year, Knights act as marshals at the annual National March for Life in Ottawa and participate in many smaller pro-life events across the country. During the debate on the redefinition of marriage in 2005, the Knights led a national postcard campaign. Councils distributed more than 500,000 cards, promoting the Catholic understanding of marriage, to Canadian parishioners that could be mailed to Members of Parliament. In 2008, Canadian Knights lobbied against the governor general’s decision to award the Order of Canada — the country’s second highest honor of merit — to Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a physician who worked to decriminalize abortion in the 1970s and ‘80s. In protest, people such as Father Lucien Larré and Frank Chauvin, both members of the Knights, returned their own Order of Canada awards to the governor general.
COLF Director Boulva said, “All the baptized have a responsibility to play an active role in the democratic process, and to be present where public opinion and the future are being shaped, in order to infuse a Christian perspective into cultural, social and economic transformations.” She added that it is through the work of organizations like COLF that Catholics can be supported in their mission to stand up to what Pope Benedict XVI has called “the dictatorship of relativism.”
A SECULAR NATION
Canada’s faith foundations shifted significantly toward secularism in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1977, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal were established as federal bodies to administer the new Canadian Human Rights Act. Today, each province also has its own Human Rights Commission. These quasi-judicial federal or provincial bodies have often stated that religious freedom is subject to the fundamental rights of others and that freedom of religion does not extend to the practice of those beliefs in the public square.
In 1982, the Canadian Parliament enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a bill of rights within the newly adopted Canadian Constitution. According to Zucchi, while the Charter aimed to secure the rights of each citizen, including religious freedom, its principal flaw is a modern concept of rights that is unhinged from a religious framework or the natural law, and is thus disconnected from the question of truth.
“What the Charter did was really open up the opportunity to create a culture of demanding absolute rights which would come into conflict with long-standing traditional rights, including religious freedom,” Zucchi said. “This really becomes a very dangerous thing not only for the Church but ultimately for human freedom. The human rights culture often defends human rights to the point where you have inhuman situations — we lose sight of the person.”
When it comes to religious freedom, there is also a notable difference in Quebec’s political environment compared to the rest of Canada. With the rise of secularism during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the French-speaking province experienced a massive loss of faith. The state now occupies the role the Church once had in Quebec society, which generally operates under the assumption that it is the government — not God — that has power to grant rights.
Zucchi noted that many threats to religious freedom in English-speaking Canada have come from the ground up — individuals refusing to compromise in a situation and then finding themselves in legal trouble. Quebec has seen a much stronger state-imposed, top-down assault upon religious freedom. In 2008, the Quebec government introduced the Ethics and Religious Culture program, mandating a so-called neutral approach to religion and ethics in all Quebec schools, regardless of an institution’s religious affiliation. Then, in 2011, the provincial government denied funding to all day care programs that offer faith-based activities for children. Both initiatives deny parents and religious institutions the freedom to offer children a religious perspective.
AN EDUCATION IN FREEDOM
Although the threats to religious liberty in Canada are grave, the bishops’ letter encourages Canadian Catholics to participate actively in all sectors of society.
Archbishop Smith related that faithful witness is still important. The government of Alberta, for instance, expressed a desire to acknowledge the historic contributions of women religious communities that founded schools, hospitals and charities.
“We now have, directly across from the main doors on the grounds of the legislature, a huge bronze statue of a religious woman in full habit as a visible reminder to everybody of the role that faith has had in the formulation of this province. This wouldn’t necessarily be the case in other places,” the archbishop said.
Boulva sees the answer to the difficulties facing Catholics in Canada in the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness and willingness of the laity to live out their faith in everyday life.
“At this time of new evangelization, we must love freedom enough to refuse to be excluded from the public forum because of our deepest beliefs,” Boulva noted, adding that the battle for religious liberty cannot simply be reduced to politics. “Yes, we must work tirelessly to change laws, but we must do so convinced that real societal change will come only when hearts have changed.”
Likewise, Zucchi believes that responding to challenges to religious liberty requires a renewal of Christian witness.
“Christ’s love for us is already the first victory. We are not fighting for a political position, for a political party, for the Church as a voluntary institution in society — no — we are there because the Church is our home, because we are aware of our belonging to Christ,” said Zucchi.
The Canadian bishops continue to call Christian men and women to stand up for their faith and encourage all people of good will to stand up for the rights of conscience and religious freedom.
Their timely message is echoed in the closing words of the Canadian national anthem, a prayer for true freedom:
“God keep our land glorious and free! O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”
COLLEEN ROULEAU writes from Edmonton, Alberta.