By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Monday, May 14, 2012

Freedom of Conscience and Religion

I would like to bring your attention to a statement issued today by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) on the protection of freedom of conscience and religion.

Today, communities of faith throughout the world are experiencing a worrisome erosion of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. There are even numerous distressing attacks on both these intimately related freedoms. Sometimes this happens by overt violence. Sometimes it involves more subtle means that limit the respect owed to the conscience of each person, or inhibit the right of all religions, or of their individual believers, to live their faith publicly and to follow the dictates of a well-formed conscience.

The Bishops of Canada are very concerned about encroachments on freedom of conscience and on the free practice of religion, both internationally and in our own country. Not only are Christians now the most persecuted group in the world, but even here in Canada we see a tendency to limit freedom of religion to a narrow concept of freedom of private worship, while at the same time limiting public expressions of religion. This narrowing is a violation of, and a threat to, the inherent rights possessed by everyone. Freedom of conscience is the right of each human person to “act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1782). Freedom of religion flows from freedom of conscience, and gives it communal and social expression. These two interrelated rights are not something given by the state, but an inherent part of our common human nature.

This is why the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is releasing its Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion. The letter explains that these freedoms are essential to the common good of countries such as Canada where diversity is the norm.

The pastoral letter, addressed to everyone of good will, calls on Catholics, all believers, and even those of no faith, 1) to affirm the right of religion to be active in the public square, 2) to maintain healthy Church-State relations, 3) to form consciences according to objective truth, and 4) to protect the right to conscientious objection. The letter also encourages all faith communities to contribute to the formulation of public policy and the common good, and concludes by exhorting believers not to compromise their convictions, but to stand up for their faith, even if they must suffer for it.

You may find the statement on the CCCB website here.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tending the Vine

I do not have a green thumb. I was once entrusted with a cactus, and even it died. You get the idea. Gardening is terra incognita for me, so I will not normally make use of horticultural imagery to underscore homily messages. However, the duty to speak of the Gospel passage for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (cf. John 15:1-8) allows me no choice, because it is precisely such analogy that Jesus uses to convey his teaching.

"I am the vine, you are the branches." In this way our Lord speaks of the vital union between himself and the disciple brought about by his Paschal Mystery. As life flows into the branch in virtue of its union with the vine and enables it to bear fruit, so, too, do life and fruitfulness flow in and through us from our communion with Jesus. And just as a branch will wither and die if cut off from the vine, so, too, are we dependent upon our Lord for life and for the good works we wish to accomplish in his name. "Apart from me you can do nothing."

When you have a moment, read Romans 6: 3-11. This is St. Paul's primary teaching on Baptism, where he speaks at verse five of growing together with Christ, an image derived from the practice of grafting a branch onto a stem. His point is the same as that of Jesus: we must be "grafted" onto the Lord if we are to receive the life he came to give. Such "grafting" occurs at our Baptism. Of course, this begs the question: what attention am I paying to this relationship? Even I know that a plant needs tending if it is to live.

Striking in this regard are the references made by Jesus to pruning. He is the vine, yes, but his Heavenly Father is the vinedresser. In love and mercy our Father tends the vine, and prunes away from its branches that which is not healthy so that it will bear the fruit he intends. This pruning takes place by means of the Word which Jesus speaks. In other words, our fruitfulness as disciples will derive first and foremost from allowing ourselves to be "pruned" by attentiveness to the Word of God and its call to conversion. To live as branches grafted on to the vine that is Jesus necessitates prayerful attentiveness to Sacred Scripture, so that we might hear and heed its call to personal repentance. This listening leads necessarily to the sacraments, where the grace of mercy enables the conversion to which the Word calls us.

Pruning. "Ouch!" Yes, letting go of that which is not healthy for our souls can hurt at first, and the pain felt will be in proportion to the degree of our attachment. But what is at stake is the fullness of life that comes from our union with Christ. Let's not hesitate to allow the Vinedresser to do his work.