St. Maximos the Confessor, who suffered in the 7th century great indignities for the truth, reminds us that “the person who loves God values knowledge of God more than anything created by God, and pursues such knowledge ardently and ceaselessly.”
Religious freedom is about living a public faith. The vast majority of the faithful in our churches have accepted implicitly the post-modern fallacy that religion is a private matter, that it is only meant for the comfortable pew, and maybe, just maybe, for the home. This is a fallacy on the one hand because it denies the historical reality of the religious life of human beings, which from time immemorial has been lived in the public square.
On the other hand, it is an even worse fallacy because it is an implicit rejection of our baptism which calls us as Christians to preach the Gospel to all nations and through the body of Christ, the Church, live a sacramental and liturgical life in the world.
I speak as a fellow Catholic and a fellow cleric. I speak out of a genuine desire that truth might guide our public lives. That truth might reign in our homes, our parishes, our schools, our hospitals, our universities, our corporate boardrooms, our legislatures, our professional bodies, our courts, and in our parliament.
There is but one truth. The truth is universal and objective. It is not an abstract philosophy, a theory, an ideology, or a set of popular opinions, all of which change with time. Truth is a person. It is Jesus Christ and Him crucified, resurrected from the dead on the third day, ascended into glory, and who will come again on the last day. He alone is the Saviour of the world.
This is the Truth we profess and this is the Truth we must confess without equivocation in the public square of this great country. This is to exercise fully our religious freedom in any political or cultural context and in any age come what may.
We are united with our brothers in Christ on this panel in professing the Risen Christ, although the scandal of disunity keeps us out of communion with one another. We are bound to Rabbi Poupko, one among our elder brothers in the faith who were the first to hear God, and we are the church of the gentiles grafted onto the tree of Judah. We are bound to Imam Refaat through a shared confession of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are bound to Pandit Sharma by a belief in an ethic of peace, justice and respect for all human beings.
We must live a life cognizant of these shared realities, but we also accept that we believe different things and in some cases very different things. As people of different faiths, we must reject a relativism or a syncretism that our society desires we embrace as something that is inauthentic and ultimately dishonest.
For us as Catholics, religious freedom is not simply an inherent freedom that we cherish; we have a responsibility to act on it and to advance the Gospel in this country at all times and in all places, explicitly and implicitly, as we are called to do. That is religious freedom for us.
Even if all our institutions are taken away, even if we lose our schools, even if we lose our charitable status, even if we are pushed to the margins of polite society, even if the government listens to us no longer, we must never tire of proclaiming the Gospel and Christ’s Resurrection. We must never wane is professing that all has been and is being changed by it, that all has been made and is being made new in it, and that it is the fullness of truth.
As Catholics, religious freedom carries with it the responsibility of defending the religious freedom of those who do not hold to our faith, that they too may be free to exercise their faith fully and publicly. Our shared humanity demands this. Our fellow citizens of other faiths and of no faith at all need us to be authentic Catholics who take a stand when it counts. They can also be our advocates when our public living out of our faith is challenged.
As bishops, all of you are well aware of the assaults on religious freedom currently underway in our country. I do not need to recapitulate here what you already know about the Trinity Western law school decision, the Canada Summer Jobs attestation, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario ruling, or the significant challenges related to the secularism law in Quebec – a grave and pernicious measure that strikes at the religious freedom of all citizens.
The challenge faced is not the various assaults on religious freedom from the State, from various administrative and professional bodies, from the media, etc. The challenge we are facing is a serious failure on the part of many of us as Christians to take the responsibility of living a public faith for the good of all. So many of our faithful are shackled by poor formation, fear and anxiety, and an amnesia of the Great Commission: to preach the Gospel to all nations.
Our beliefs and convictions must be daily transformed into actions – actions guided by love, mercy, and an unflagging commitment to truth. To meet this challenge we must pray that the Holy Spirit will raise up martyrs and confessors in our country and that clergy and faithful will support these witnesses to truth.
The vocations of martyr and confessor are vocations of the apostolic church called to represent to the broader community the truth of the Incarnation and what it says about human dignity. By their words and witness they call all to embrace this ever-present reality so central to our common life.
These martyrs and confessors are faithful women and men who stand for truth in the face of falsehood and who champion human dignity in the face of its degradation by lies about the value of human suffering. They are men and women who will radically live their religious freedom so as to stand against a utilitarian understanding of the human person. In exercising this freedom they will reject the depersonalizing of human beings into objects that can be dispensed with when their utility or viability has ceased, this according to the disordered measure of the creature against the express divine and eternal will of the Creator.
To exercise this freedom is to stand publicly against what does violence to the human person: euthanasia, abortion, economic objectification, and so on.
Martyrs must be willing to bear witness to human dignity in their public lives. Whether they are doctors, lawyers, academics, clergy, students, or parents they will willingly sacrifice social status, their employment, and experience public demonizing and shaming for their beliefs and actions. Witness has the power to change minds and hearts.
Confessors are those who will present an apologetic that can be received and embraced by those in our communities whose ears and hearts are open to truth and who can be formed so as to re-encounter the dignity that they and those around them bear. These are vocations that have renewed the Church through the ages.
You are more aware than me of the responsibilities you bear in your episcopal ministry in leading the faithful people of God. You share in Our Lord’s ministry of self-emptying for the world. You are our shepherds. You are the successors of the apostles. You are charged with transferring the kerygma. You wear the purple and scarlet of martyrdom. Inspire the faithful. Inspire the clergy.
Go out into the deep, O you apostles of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Do not be afraid.