Church increasingly finds itself at odds with culture

There is no place in the world where Catholics are freer than in Canada. Catholics in Canada have not just the right to practice their faith, but they are encouraged to contribute to society from the wellspring of faith.

Catholic schools in Ontario enjoy the same government funding as public schools. In much of the rest of the country, Catholic schools receive generous government subsidies.

Canada’s tax-supported universal health care system owes much to the Catholic hospitals and clinics that came to the rescue of many poor patients in the days when health care depended on the bottom line of private health insurers.

From homeless shelters to family counseling services, Catholic social services are part of the fabric of Canada’s social safety net across the country.

Emerging threats

Despite all this freedom to act on basic tenets of Catholic Faith, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was moved in May 2012 to issue a pastoral letter urging Canadians to be vigilant in defending their freedom of religion and conscience.

In 2005, Canada became the fourth nation in the world to legalize gay marriage, and the first outside Europe. While churches were explicitly excluded in the law from any requirement to accommodate gay weddings, the question of what to do about Catholics employed at city hall registry offices was much harder to resolve. Would they be forced to sign the papers or officiate at gay weddings?

Then came the issue of bullying. Suicide of gay teens at Catholic and public schools and incidents of harassment filled the front pages and forced the issue onto the legislative agenda in several provinces. In Ontario, provincial law makers required every school and school board to have a bullying policy and a specific plan to combat bullying.

Catholic schools and bishops were on board until the issue of specific clubs for gay teens came up. An initiative modeled after the American after-school club Gay-Straight Alliances was proposed, and the Catholic schools balked.

Legislators looked at the bishops’ position, along with many parents who made presentations on the issue, and smelled irrational fear. The Catholic proposal for dealing with kids bullied because they are gay wouldn’t even use the word gay. Newspaper editorials and legislators called it homophobia, and the legislation was changed to allow any group of students to name its own club.

Was this a violation of religious liberty? Was the legislature putting limits on how Catholic a Catholic school could be when it came to same-sex relationships? The debate rages both within the Church and beyond.

International scope

But the question of religious liberty has grown to embrace larger questions. Canada’s refugee system, which takes in one of every 10 resettled refugees in the world, works overtime to meet the needs of people persecuted for religion.

Hundreds of Catholic parishes across Canada sponsor Christian Iraqi refugees. Many more anticipate future refugee crises in Syria and Egypt. Catholics helped to push the Conservative government to appoint its first ambassador with responsibility for religious freedom in February.

Catholics have been supporters of refugees, but they realize they cannot fix the problem by bringing victims to Canada and allowing the rest of the world to hunt down its minorities. They owe its religious liberty to the world, and they must find ways to export it.