For the Symposium on Religious Freedom

19 April 2023

Appears in: Messages and Homilies

For the Symposium on Religious Freedom

Religion for the Common Good

Introductory Remarks

Allow me to begin with a word of thanks. I am grateful not only for the invitation to spend time with you all in discussion of this very important topic of freedom of religion and its importance in the community, but also for the opportunity it affords me to say a particular word of thanks to our hosts for the wonderful generosity extended to the Catholic community in recent months.

When the papal visit was drawing near, you reached out to us and offered hundreds of volunteers to assist in this amazingly complex undertaking. We in the Archdiocese were deeply moved by this concrete gesture of fellowship, and those who worked with your membership found it a joy to do so. Recently, our Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, a lay ministry which serves the poor, received from you very generous financial donations, which enabled them to purchase beds, food, and other supplies for families in need. Thank you so very much for these acts of great kindness and deep compassion. We are greatly heartened when in such ways we can work together for the common good.

That last point – collaboration for the common good – signals the direction I would like to take with you in my reflections this afternoon. The right to freedom of religion and various threats against it are nothing new to any of us. Like St. Augustine once said about the beauty of God, challenges to freedom of religion are “ever ancient, and ever new”. I also take for granted our shared understanding that freedom of religion is not simply and solely liberty of worship, but includes the right of believers to share with others faith’s insights into the meaning of creation and human existence within it. What I would like to reflect upon with you in our time together – and let me emphasize that these are simply reflections; they would each need further development that the limitation of time does not allow – is how I see the pressures we face as opportunities to present religion as a gift for the common good. Religion is threatened when it is itself perceived as a threat. Yet, what are in fact perceived to be religion’s menaces to society are in truth its gifts, without which the common good suffers.

Let me contextualize my thoughts with two stories.


Next door to where I live there used to be a family with four young children. One day a number of years ago they were playing in their backyard when I arrived home. One of the little girls, four years old at the time, saw me and came running over. She said, “Hey! Aren’t you the Church guy?” “Well,” I said, “Yes, I guess I am.” She looked at me again and said, “Then why aren’t you in Church?” and then, without waiting for an answer, she ran off to play again.

I’ve thought about that question a lot since then, because it finds an echo in the questions or comments that we often hear directed at “Church people.” It will frequently be formulated not as “Why aren’t you in Church,” but “Why don’t you stay there?” In other words, faith and its insights are seen to have no place in public discourse and are best kept confined within the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue, and temple, an entirely private affair.

For us “Church people”, that is, people of any faith, we know this is impossible. Religious faith impels us outward in hope and joy. We do not seek to impose our belief on anyone, as is mistakenly (and frequently) charged against us. We do not impose; we propose. And what we have to propose is something extraordinarily beautiful: a message of truth and of hope. Yet, in spite of its beauty, it is not always well received. This is because it is usually – and accurately – received as counter-cultural, a counter-sign to the prevailing idolatries or received “wisdom” of the day. Those idolatries are easy enough to identify, as I am sure you have done in your respective contexts. To them has been added of late a worldview that is particularly troubling and on the rise, namely, religious indifferentism.

The patron of our Newman Theological College is Saint John Henry Newman. In a sermon he gave for the opening of St. Bernard’s seminary in Birmingham, England, on the 2nd of October 1873, he had as the focus of his thoughts the future as he could then foresee it, specifically the conditions within which the seminarians he was addressing, and future students of theology, would exercise their ecclesial ministry. He did not mince his words, and foretold that the Church would be facing a world unlike anything Christianity had yet seen, (and, I would add, unlike anything religion in general had seen) a world, as he put it, that was “simply irreligious”.

Subsequent history has proven him right. I once was in conversation with some young adults (this is the second story), and asked what they thought were some of the main reasons people no longer came to Church. I assumed they would speak of doctrinal points with which people disagree. Instead, one young man put it simply this way: “Archbishop, for most people today the Church is not even on the radar.” That the world we inhabit is increasingly irreligious is borne out by statistics that record religious practice, and indicate a growing number of “nones” – no religion at all. God and religious practice are more and more “not even on the radar”. When they do come to people’s attention, they are often dismissed as irrelevant, as having no meaningful connection with how a person is to live his or her life. It is therefore felt best to “have the church people stay in church” because what they have to say would be of no possible relevance to the public good. They only “disrupt things”. As long as religion is in this way perceived as threatening to the status quo, either personal or collective, threats to its free exercise will arise.

The answer, it seems to me, is to demonstrate how what are perceived to be bothersome threats are, in fact, needed gifts for the building and flourishing of the common good. We need to do this together, and in a manner that is convincing.

That’s the context. Allow me to share with you now three opportunities we have to “shift the narrative”, to use once again an over-used phrase, to demonstrate the beauty of religion and the necessity of sharing its insights with broader society. I shall also present what I see in each of these as invitations to us to serious self-reflection.

Religion as a Threat to Societal Order

For the most part, Canada is a pluralistic society. A healthy pluralism, marked by mutual respect, is something we all welcome and encourage. Within such a society we recognize the proper place and role of a “legitimate secularity”, which “draws a distinction between religion and politics, between Church and state” (cf. CCCB, Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion, April 2012, p. 8). What we are witnessing more and more, however, is the growth of a secularism closed in upon itself and thus not at all open to religious belief and the insights of its various traditions (cf. James K.A. Smith and Charles Taylor, Imagining an ‘Open’ Secularism in Comment Magazine, September 1, 2014. Religion is therefore perceived as a threat to peaceful order and must therefore be narrowly circumscribed and marginalized. The sad irony here, of course, is that such a radical secularism contains within itself the seeds of societal division. Without a common and transcendent reference point for the ordering of our individual and collective lives, the maintenance of social cohesion becomes an exercise of power, the assertion of the will, which leads inevitably to conflict. This is now on abundant display in the polarization that impacts not only our country and province but also at times our families.

Here we have an opportunity to demonstrate the unifying power of religion. The very word itself – religion – likely derives from the Latin religare, to bind. What binds members of a religion together is their common worship of the transcendent God, whom they recognize as their one moral compass. From this recognition, they allow themselves to be bound by common precept, which at once links them to God and one another. The worship of God and all that flows from it in terms of an ordered life unifies; the eclipse of God by self-worship scatters. In the Catholic perspective, the Church, precisely as a communion, is to serve as both a sign and instrument of the unity that God wills for all humanity.

At an historical moment when the search, the longing, for societal harmony is particularly acute, religion demonstrates how real unity is possible. Yet, here we must recognize in all humility that our witness to unity is not at present particularly convincing. People can point out that religious adherents are themselves divided, which is true, not only among ourselves but also within our respective religious traditions. The opportunity we now have to point society in the direction of real and lasting unity becomes a challenge to us to draw closer together, within our own religious families first, and with one another. On that point, let me say that the faith communities of the Edmonton area have already made great strides in this direction and are deeply motivated to continue. There is an opportunity here to forge a real beacon of hope, yet we must remain deliberate about it.

Religion as a Threat to Freedom

Linked with the development of a self-enclosed secularism is the emergence of radical individualism. This, in turn, has given rise to the widespread assertion of autonomy understood as absolute. I am free to determine the meaning, direction, and finality of my life. Religion, with its call to obedience to God and to live in full accord with our God-given natures, seeks to impose a limit to my freedom and must, therefore, be strongly resisted. This claim to radical autonomy is leading our country in perilous directions. For example, the rapid expansion of access to assisted suicide and euthanasia, made possible by the removal as discriminatory of so-called societal safeguards, an expansion that now envisions persons with mental illness and eventually even minors, shows how the myth of absolute autonomy leads away from concern for the common good and toward society’s atomization.

I use the word “myth” deliberately. Absolute autonomy is a fiction. Something as simple as family story-telling is proof of this. These days, when families gather, children will often engage with their toys, gadgets, cellphones, or video games. They are entirely distracted by them, until elders start telling family stories. It is fascinating to watch the children when this happens. As grandparents, for example, recount episodes of past family adventures or tales about growing up, all the gadgets are set aside and the children become absolutely riveted. They miss nothing of what is said, drinking it all in. They really light up when stories are told about them. They are discovering roots, belonging, learning that they are part of something bigger than themselves, part of a network of relationships; at the same time, they feel the joy of being noticed, of having a part, of mattering. In the midst of the family, we discover that we are not just a member of the group; we are, within that group, a someone whose very existence is celebrated, and who matters not for anything we are able to do but just for who we are. One’s personal identity is unique, yet at the same time inseparably connected to the relationships that forge it. The relationships are reciprocal and interdependent, providing love and meaning, and engendering responsibilities and obligations. Absolute autonomy is a myth. Positing it as true can only lead to a sense of disconnection and loneliness.

What religion can offer here is the correct understanding of freedom. To do so, we must distinguish carefully between freedom and license. License is refusal of all limit and constraint in order to do what I want. Freedom is liberty within limit to do what I must. The limit within which we exercise freedom is truth: the truth of our creaturely dependence upon God, the truth of our relationship of interdependence with others, and the truth that I am not my own. Clearly, we are touching on things here that are radically counter-cultural. The prevailing worldview is that truth is something entirely subjective. It is not something objective, external to myself, but the product of my mind, the expression of my desires, and even something I project outward to fashion reality, not only for myself but also for others. That this itself leads to societal disarray is obvious. Religion’s invitation is not only to recognize the limits inherent in reality and in relationships, above all with God, but also to embrace them as truly liberating and enlivening.

To do this credibly, we ourselves must embrace limit. We are sadly aware of what happens when limitations imposed by the moral order are breached by religious leaders. The Catholic Church has suffered grievously from this, as have others. This leaves our credibility deeply compromised. We can only invite others to embrace limit when we do so ourselves and thus give witness to the joy of holy and fulfilled lives grounded upon and ordered by truth.

Religion as a Threat to the State

Looking back as long ago as to ancient Rome, religion was not understood by the State to be a threat so long as all religions worshiped that State’s own gods together with their own. Christianity’s and Judaism’s refusal to do so was rightly seen as a challenge and threat to the pantheon, and was in consequence ruthlessly persecuted.  In our day, the State, which is presumed to be religiously neutral and expected to uphold religious freedom and protect it from persecution, has in many ways adopted its own “gods” and honoured their precepts by inclusion in legislation. From this arises a purported legal obligation that religious institutions will follow these precepts together with their own. Thus, an inner contradiction arises within the State itself as it seeks to override by legislation what it should instead protect according to the Constitution.

What religion can and must offer here is a necessary corrective to the State’s own self-understanding. Allow me here to turn to the famous teaching of Jesus: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt 22:21) At one level, Christians see in these words the ground for the legitimate separation of Church and State, in which each has its respective sphere of operation, which should be respectful of each other. Yet, the words carry a message far beyond that, for the simple reason that even “Caesar” belongs to God. This does not warrant religion’s involvement in the running of government. It does mean, however, that the public sphere must create space for religion’s fulfilment of its duties to Almighty God, which include putting our faith into practice by sharing it with others and engaging in works of charity. “Church people” don’t just stay in church. Religion seeks to make known the truth of God’s love and the hope it bestows. Religion is no threat to the State. Having reflected for centuries upon God, the human being, and the right ordering of authentic human community, religion has many important insights to share for the sake of what is, in fact, at the heart of State governance: care for the common good.

And since Caesar belongs to God, it goes without saying that God does not belong to Caesar. Any attempt by the State to impose the worship and precepts of its secular gods must be resisted. Lest this statement be seen, however, as a call to arms, it is in the first instance an invitation to mutual listening. On this point, allow me to offer as my conclusion a proposal regarding the way forward.


Along my journey with the Indigenous Peoples of this land, I have learned from them many things. Among them is the importance of real listening. By this I mean listening to hear, not to react or respond. In sharing circles, participants allow one another to take whatever time they need to share what is on their mind or in their heart. This patient listening is aimed at seeking really to hear and understand what is being shared. It bespeaks a profound respect for the dignity of the other, a recognition that each person matters, that their story is worthy of being told and heard. In our culture we tend not to listen in this way. In fact, sometimes it seems we have lost the ability to listen at all, unless it is to my own desires and wants. Listening to the other, in our rather fractured society, assumes the form not of listening in order to hear but listening in order to respond, or more accurately, listening in order to shut down whatever opinions or positions challenge my own. This phenomenon often goes by the name of cancel culture, which seems to be thriving in many diverse environments, sometimes even in religious communities.


Are we able to fashion circles of listening in which religion sits down with government, business, law, sport, technology, and so on in order truly to hear one another?  In this way religion can listen deeply to the questions, challenges, and anxieties of the day and offer its contribution. Segments of society would thus be exposed to what we truly believe and offer rather than what they conclude about us from the media, water cooler conversation, and the like. Authentic and deep mutual listening will help us discover our common humanity, our shared hopes and desires, and create that space wherein people come to know that what they mistakenly believe to be our threats are actually gifts that can contribute to the right and good ordering of our life together.

And what of the need for us to listen to one another as co-religionists? We have done a lot of that; I suggest we need to do much more in terms of interreligious dialogue. Growth in mutual understanding will yield greater collaboration in advocacy for justice and works of charity, and these in turn will strengthen religion’s credibility as a necessary force for good and thus reinforce the need for the protection of its free exercise.

Most Reverend Richard W. Smith

Archbishop of Edmonton

April 16th, 2023