Some days it is tiring trying to be a person of religious commitment. How are people of religious sensibility to conduct themselves in the public sphere in the face of the incredible diversity in which we increasingly live?
Yesterday in the “National Post,” Justin Trottier and Michael Payton took on the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops for, in their words, presenting the Catholic church as a “claimant for persecuted group status” in their recently released 12-page “Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion” [download PDF]
Trottier and Payton accuse the Roman Church of taking a hypocritical stance,
that denies others fundamental rights while claiming for itself special privilege.
It is a serious and troubling charge they base on the bishops’
inclusion of the secularization of society within a list of the most pernicious forms of religious persecution.
For Trottier and Payton, the entrenchment of “secularization” as public policy is not a movement to be opposed, but something to be embraced as an essential element for protecting the diversity of life in a multi-cultural context.
The secularization of the public sphere is a necessary reaction to the reality of a pluralistic democratic society.
Does the rich ethnic and religious diversity we enjoy in our society depend upon secularism? Or, is respect for human uniqueness only possible, as Trottier and Payton claim the Bishops appear to be believe, in a culture that is rooted in religious belief?
The Bishops repeatedly claim that religious rights are the linchpin of every other right, and that conscience rights, properly understood, stem from religious belief. In rather telling remarks, the Pastoral Letter claims “the right to act according to one’s conscience must therefore be accompanied by accepting the duty to conform it to the truth and to the law which God has engraved on our hearts.”
Do the freedoms and privileges we enjoy in Canada depend upon the enshrinement of “religious rights” in our society? What “religious rights” need to be enshrined? Are there any limits to the “rights” that should be accorded to people on the basis of their religious sensibility? Who gets to decide which “rights” are worthy of protection under the law and which “rights” claimed by religious people in fact exceed the appropriate parameters of legal protection?
Are religious people being “persecuted” when society seeks conformity to certain social standards that may not be exactly congruent with a particular religious group’s beliefs and practices?
We live in an enormously complex variegated social framework.Whether we like it or not, differences abound. People conduct their lives with integrity and honesty according to a wide variety of ethics and principles. People of a religious sensibility may lament that fact that there no longer appears to be a one-size-fits-all pattern for the conduct of human relationships, but we cannot turn back the clock. The cat is out of the bag – people are different. Within the same communities there are people who have sincerely held beliefs that are at times radically opposed. We need to get used to the reality of heterogeneity.
It is not immediately obvious where to look to find healthy examples of ways in which people can live together and cooperate in our current context with mutual respect and cooperation. But, if we cannot find ways to honour the differences that are increasingly characteristic of our social fabric, we risk losing the cherished freedoms that help to make our society such a potentially fecund and creative ecosystem. When we can not respect difference, persecution will soon stop being subtle and we will no longer have to speculate about who are the real victims.