The freedom of conscience rights
The BC Catholic
4 February, 2011
Reproduced with permission
Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB*
Excerpt from a homily by Archbishop J. Michael
Miller, CSB, during the White Mass for health-care providers in Vancouver,
British Columbia, in January, 2011.
Lest the right of conscientious objection not be
recognized, Catholic health-care professionals, chaplains and all those who
assist them must love freedom enough to insist on this right in the public
forum. We must never allow ourselves to become marginalized because of our
lack of courage.
In a world held thrall to what the Holy Father has called the
"dictatorship of relativism," Catholic health-care workers must be free to
live Christ's message in their professional lives: to be witnesses to the
One who is "the way, and the truth, and the life." Without such freedom, we
cannot pursue our personal or collective mission to ensure the presence of
Jesus' healing ministry in our world.
Besides the religious indifference tragically evident in Canadian society
today, we face an increasingly aggressive secularism whose objective is to
prevent religion from having any influence in public institutions, including
that of health care. This spiritually lethal secularism strives to confine
the influence and role of religious faith of all stripes to worship
services, socially acceptable charity, and works for justice. Obliging
people of faith to keep their opinions to themselves is in itself, if you
think about it, an undemocratic way of buying harmony among citizens of a
free society. It is a thinly veiled way of curtailing the freedom of
expression of religious believers.
As workers in health care, which was a concern of the Church long before
the rise of the nation state, we must resist all such attempts to
marginalize our faith to the sanctuary or politically acceptable good works.
Thinking, acting, and speaking as convinced Catholics in our profession
should never exclude us from the realm of civil public discourse in
society's institutions of education, health care, and social services.
Although faith is a personal issue, it is not a private one. When we
think about it, there is no such thing as a non-believer; each person has a
"faith," something that he or she "believes" in, whether they are atheist,
agnostic, or religious.
Disciples of Christ should not have to lead a double life: one in the
privacy of the home and church, the other at work in the hospital, clinic,
doctor's office or any other health-care institution.
An increasing number of our fellow citizens are beginning to believe that
a person's right to medical care supersedes respect for the conscience of
the professional from whom the care is expected. We would therefore be
blind, even foolhardy, to ignore the grave assaults on the freedom of
conscience experienced by Canadian health-care providers. The college of
physicians in Quebec now requires that members who refuse to perform
abortions refer patients to another physician willing to do so. Elsewhere
pharmacists must fight not to have to fill prescriptions for contraceptives
or the morning after pill.
As for the Church, ever faithful in fostering the dignity of the human
person, she never ceases to defend the freedom of conscience and the right
to conscientious objection of all people, whatever their religion or
philosophy of life. The Church unequivocally teaches that a person "is not
to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his or her conscience. Nor, on
the other hand, is he or she to be restrained from acting in accordance with
his conscience, especially in matters religious" (Vatican II).
It is "a grave duty of conscience not to cooperate in practices which,
although permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to the law of God." It
is, in fact, "legitimate to resist authority should it violate in a serious
or repeated manner the essential principles of natural law." To refuse to
cooperate in evil actions is not only a duty, but also a fundamental human
right that must be protected.
We must recognize and reinforce at every turn the right of health-care
professionals to conscientious objection. No person, hospital, or
institution should be forced, held liable or discriminated against in any
way because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, or assist in any act
Lest the right of conscientious objection not be recognized, Catholic
health-care professionals, chaplains and all those who assist them must love
freedom enough to insist on this right in the public forum. We must never
allow ourselves to become marginalized because of our lack of courage. We
cannot stoop to a conspiracy of silence and complicity. Christ calls us to
cast aside such paralysis and to assume our responsibility of fidelity.
The Church's vitality has often resulted from persecution. Our day seems
to be no exception. Are we, too, ready to give our lives where it costs us
the most, in our profession? We may not be called to shed our blood, as the
Christians of Iraq or other places are today, but we are surely called to
witness to Christ by living a life in keeping with the Gospel. Christ did
not take on the sin of the world to exempt us. On the contrary, he invites
us to follow in his steps to Calvary.
The famous "Be not afraid" of John Paul II continues to ring out, and has
been taken up by Benedict XVI: "Don't be afraid to give your life to
Christ!" Let's not be afraid. Fear paralyzes and prevents us from answering
the call of the Holy Spirit to be faithful in our daily lives.