The Canadian bishops have released an important pastoral letter “on freedom of conscience and religion”, although the relevance of this letter extends beyond that of the Church in Canada. In this document, the bishops refer to those issues which have inspired the Catholic Church community to give testimony and demonstrate their commitment to belief. Pope Benedict, as we know, has addressed these issues, such as in his messages for the World Day of Peace and in his speech to the Diplomatic Corps.

There are two main points of consideration here, the first referring to blatant violations of religious rights. A recent study conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life highlighted that “more than 70% of countries in the world impose legal or administrative restrictions which in practice annul the rights of individual believers or of some religious groups”. Another report, put together by Aid to the Church in Need, states that “today more than 75% of religious persecution in the world affects Christians”.

The second consideration takes into account the far more subtle dangers caused by relativism, which has become so aggressive it is directed – as the Pope said – “against people who say they know where the truth and meaning of life are”. This has become increasingly perceptible in western societies, such as is seen in the current debates over the United States health care system. It is not by chance, therefore, that this Canadian document addresses these dangers from all angles. The document reiterates that religion has the right to intervene in the public sphere, to maintain proper relations between Church and State, to educate consciences in objective truth, and to protect the right to conscience-driven objection. The Catholic Church and its followers only seek the common good, and are able to do so without committing violence in the name of conscience or faith.

These are challenges that we must confront and reconcile to the cultural and social conditions unique to today. The Pope helps us to engage in open and constructive dialogue regarding the issues, and his speeches at Westminster Hall in London and at the Parliament of Berlin are good examples of this. Let us continue along this path.