Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
August 27, 2001
The limits of religious libertyThe right to religious freedom is the most basic human right next to that of life itself. It is the most basic right because a decision to follow a particular religious system is made by that capacity central to the dignity of the human person - the exercise of conscience. Abolish religious freedom and you shatter human dignity. You reduce the person to the level of a thing.
In Canada this summer, two news stories have cropped up about the right of parents to corporally punish their children as an exercise of their religious liberty - the more publicized story in Ontario and another one in Prince Edward Island (with Alberta roots).
The protests surrounding the Ontario case have implied that since one religious group believes parents have a biblical mandate to regularly punish their children using a wooden paddle then that mandate must be respected by civil society.
Built into that belief is an assumption about a strict separation of Church and state. Church members must be free from state intervention even if they abuse their children.
That belief, however, is contrary both to reason and the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council gave a strong defence of the right to religious liberty, saying that Catholics should support the recognition of such liberty in the constitutional order of society. The council also said, "Every family . . . has the right freely to organize its own religious life in the home under the control of the parents."
But these rights are not absolute. The council went on to proclaim "Civil society has the right to protect itself against possible abuses committed in the name of religious freedom." The council did not say what would constitute such an abuse. But the rapid growth of cults in the past 35 years as well as the widespread abandonment of objective moral norms in favour of a moral subjectivity provide a large scope for the abuse of religious freedom.
Further, while parents bear the primary responsibility for the raising of their children, they also have an obligation to be fair to their children. They have the right, under Canadian law, to spank their children, but also the responsibility not to do so "excessively."
Again, just as there is no absolute separation of Church and state, neither is there an absolute right of parents, while controlling their children, to ignore laws justly established by the state. A child is a person, not a piece of property. The good of the child is part of the common good.
None of this is said to take a stand on whether police and social workers used only reasonable force in apprehending the seven weeping children of an Aylmer, Ont., family last month. Nor does it necessarily imply that the Ontario Children's Aid Society was right in concluding that the parents made excessive use of spanking and that their children should be made wards of the state. The latter issue will be examined by the courts, we hope, both quickly and fairly.
But if we question what sometimes appear to be high-handed exercises of power by the children's aid establishment, we must also question the growing view that parental power over children ought to be unlimited. And we must also question the view that any sect can justify inhumane practices by appealing to an isolated verse of Scripture.
The common good is rooted in the transcendent dignity of the human person. Without God, we cannot have human justice. But the common good is also rooted in common sense.
Vatican II said, "Man's freedom should be given the fullest possible recognition and should not be curtailed except when and insofar as is necessary." But it also pointed out that abuses are committed in the name of religious liberty. Let's not be so adamant about human freedom that we neglect the importance of human responsibility.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.