The president of the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops (CCCB) called aggressive secularism “hostile to a truly democratic and pluralist society” and defended religious freedom and conscience rights in a speech Aug. 7 at the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in Anaheim, California.
“These freedoms are not granted by the state, society or any human authority, but belong to all people by virtue of their humanity,” Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton told the gathering of 2,000 Knights from all over the world. “For this reason, when these freedoms are disregarded or repressed, the human person – and therefore human society – suffers.”
He called for believers to “stand up for their faith, even if they must suffer for it.”
“Freedom of conscience is necessary for seeking the truth and adhering to the truth,” he said. “Freedom of religion is not merely the right to freedom of worship; it includes the right to live out one’s faith in the public square.”
Archbishop Smith praised the “impressive and courageous leadership” of the bishops and faithful in the United States in response to the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services mandate. The mandate requires charitable and religious organizations to pay for insurance that covers sterilization and birth control even if it goes against their teachings.
The archbishop referred to the CCCB’s recent pastoral letter on religious freedom that he said was prompted by violent attacks on Christians in many parts of the world and in Canada the presence of “an aggressive relativism that actively seeks to force its own view of truth on others.”
“It attempts to relegate religious belief to the private sphere, and considers religion to be insignificant, alien or even destabilizing,” he said. “Legitimate secularity is open to the engagement of religious beliefs and faith communities in public debate and civic life.”
“Radical secularism, however, excludes religion from the public square. This disfigured view of the secular attempts to silence religious believers when their views contradict its own, particularly on issues of education, human life and the family,” he said. “It is highly hostile to a truly democratic and pluralist society, in that it tolerates only its own voice and tries to silence all others.”
“On an issue of such fundamental importance we must not fail to be vocal,” he said. "It is not just a Catholic issue, but impacts the lives of all believers and even those of no faith.”
Smith said throughout North America there is a clear need to affirm the rights of religion in the public square and to defend the rights of individuals and institutions to act according to their beliefs.
"Throughout North America the need is clear. Our call at this moment is to affirm the right of religion to be active in the public square; to defend the freedom of people of faith and of religious institutions to act in accordance with their beliefs and their nature; to keep a healthy church / state relationship; (to uphold) the right of conscientious objection and the need to understand the conscience and the necessity of formation in accordance to objective truth."
Archbishop Smith brought greetings on behalf of the Canadian bishops and expressed his esteem for the Knights of Columbus’ witness in the public square. He also thanked them for their support of the Conference, and financial contribution to the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF).
Archbishop Smith was accompanied to the Supreme Convention by CCCB vice president Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau. Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto and Archbishop Gerald Lacroix of Quebec also attended the Convention.