The freedom of conscience rights


This article is excerpted from a homily given by the Archbishop of Vancouver, B. C. during the White Mass for health-care providers in January 2011.

This article first appeared in The B.C. Catholic
newspaper and on The B.C. Catholic website

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB

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.

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 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 violating conscience.

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.




The Most Reverend J. Michael Miller, CSB, "The freedom of conscience rights." B.C. Catholic (February 4, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the B.C. Catholic and the author, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB of Vancouver, B.C.

This article is an excerpt from a homily given by Archbishop Miller during the White Mass for health-care providers in January.


The Most Reverend J. Michael Miller, CSB, was born in Ottawa, Canada, on July 9, 1946. On June 29, 1975, Pope Paul VI ordained him a priest, and on November 23, 2003 Pope John Paul II appointed him titular Archbishop of Vertara, Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education and Vice President of the Pontifical Work of Priestly Vocations. He became Archbishop of Vancouver on January 2, 2009. Archbishop Miller is a member of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses and of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People as well as a consultor to the Congregation for Bishops.

Archbishop Miller is a specialist on the papacy and modern papal teaching, he has published seven books and more than 100 articles, scholarly, popular and journalistic. His books include The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development, and Mission of the Papacy (1995) the Encyclicals of John Paul II (2nd ed., 2001), and The Holy See's Teaching on Catholic Schools (2006).

Archbishop Miller has received honorary doctorates from St. Michael's College (Vermont), University of Dallas (Texas), University of St. Thomas (Texas) and University of Steubenville (Ohio) and the Australian Catholic University (Sydney).

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