A ‘persecution engine’ is causing us to self-censor our faith: report – BC Catholic | #socialmedia

While she was executive director of the pro-life group Vancouver’s Life Community, Annabelle Chong heard many stories from faithful Catholics who had to be cautious what they said in the workplace when hot-button subjects like abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgender rights came up for discussion around the coffee machine or lunchroom. 

Controversial issues on which the Church maintains counter-cultural positions “definitely bring more heated discussion, and you do have to play it safe,” Chong said in an interview. “You have to be more careful in the workplace. You want to pick your battles … and if you need to avoid controversial issues, then do so if you think your job is at stake.”

        Annabelle Chong

Such self-censorship by Catholic workers is “definitely not fair,” she admits, because fellow workers holding politically acceptable liberal “woke” views are usually free to espouse them at will.

Self-censorship can be seen as a manifestation of cancel culture, and it’s more than just a minor workplace irritant, say the authors of a major international report on the anti-Christian “chilling effect” that’s rolling across modern Western society.

In fact, they say secular intolerance represents a “persecution engine” that is both pernicious and dangerous to religious freedom.

Secular intolerance represents a “persecution engine” that is both pernicious and dangerous to religious freedom, says a new report.

Hate crimes, including the wildfire of anti-Catholic arson and vandalism that swept across Canada last summer (see story below), may be the latest, most visible manifestation of anti-Christian bias, but just as threatening is the rendering as unacceptable any expression of traditional Christian teaching on fundamental life issues.

‘The instrumental use of religion as a wedge to ply apart Canadian society is dangerous.  It signals that there is a minority which neither fully belongs in our society nor should it enjoy the full privileges of citizenship.’   Prof. Paul Rowe, Trinity Western University

Religious persecution is often thought of as “people who are jailed or facing criminal charges, or even facing death for their faith,” Canadian academic Janet Epp-Buckingham said during an on-line conference with the Vienna-based Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians, one of three groups that published the study’s findings.

“But in secular countries there is this ‘death by a thousand cuts’” consisting of “numerous smaller matters adding up to the larger issue of feeling under pressure for your faith and thereby having this chilling effect that ‘I can’t say anything about my faith.’”

Epp-Buckingham, a professor at Trinity Western University in Langley and director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, said in a later interview with The B.C. Catholic that while the report on self-censorship centred on case studies in France, Germany, Columbia, and Mexico, there has been a clear narrowing of acceptable public discourse in Canada, with the result that Christians here are being forced to self-censor.

“Christians are afraid to express their views on social media for fear of repercussions at work or in their social circles,” said Epp-Buckingham, who is also executive editor of the International Journal for Religious Freedom.

“Christians are regularly advised to keep any church affiliation off their resume or LinkedIn as it might hurt their career. There seems to be a widespread view that religion should be a private matter and kept to oneself.”

Such privatization of religion creates a problem because it severs important aspects of Christians’ faith from their lives, telling believers “their faith is shameful and should be hidden,” Epp-Buckingham said.

“It keeps people from being full participants in [the Canadian] community” because Christians “cannot be part of public discourse on important issues of the day. We have a society that says that it values diversity and inclusion, so it should be including people of faith.”

The chilling effect could have even more serious effects, said Madeleine Enzlberger, executive director of the Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians.

Madeleine Enzlberger, executive director of the Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians, says if the social costs of religion become too high, people may abandon their beliefs.

“One of the most worrying and tragic findings of this report is that [it finds] if the social costs to follow your belief and to express it become too high, people will ultimately abandon their belief,” Enzlberger told the conference. “And it is especially younger and uneducated people whose faith is at risk here.”

The report Perceptions on Self-Censorship: Confirming and Understanding the ‘Chilling Effect’ was published by the International Institute for Religious Freedom, the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America, and the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe. Researchers conducted extensive interviews to reach their conclusions and chose the four subject countries because they all have an “advanced degree of secularization.”

‘One of the most worrying and tragic findings of this report is that [it finds] if the social costs to follow your belief and to express it become too high, people will ultimately abandon their belief.’  Madeleine Enzlberger, executive director of the Vienna-based Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians

They found secularization has narrowed the corridor of socially acceptable discourse, in turn producing a chilling effect on opinions outside of that corridor and ultimately precipitating extensive Christian self-censorship. The phenomenon is most noticeable in online social forums.

“It’s not about strict legal cases or persecution even,” said German sociologist Friederike Boellmann, one of the report’s three authors, “but every person that I interviewed noticed a change in the climate or a narrowing of the opinion corridor.”

One surprise from the German research was that universities were the most hostile environment. “And the largest extent of self-censorship I found in my research [was] in the academic realm,” said Boellmann.

German sociologist Friederike Boellmann says “every person that I interviewed noticed a change in the climate or a narrowing of the opinion corridor” when it comes to expressions of faith.

German interviewees told researchers that a major problem is the influence of mass media, which oversimplify and sensationalize news to such an extent that it “destroys a functioning debate culture, evokes personal offence, and makes ‘media victims’ careful to avoid more trouble.”

Some interviewees said the nature of public debate “has worsened to the point that people are forever excluded from debates, lose their professional credibility, are not invited anymore and – not to be underestimated – [are thought to] become dangers to other people that are seen in contact with them.”

In Mexico and Colombia, researchers concluded that an important consequence of the chilling effect “is not only that persons are limited in their exercise of religion or in their right to manifest their convictions, but also that these violations to the right to religious freedom can cause the disappearance of religion in a given context.”

In France, they heard that “in contemporary society, virtually all topics are being discussed publicly, with one exception: conservative Christian voices are either ridiculed or ignored.”

The research found that Catholics tend to self-censor more than other Christians. “Apparently, the biblical training received by the Evangelical sector is more profound and this influences the capacity of its members to speak without fear about the Christian faith or about topics related to life, marriage, and family from a Christian perspective,” the report states.

While the researchers did not study the self-censorship problem in Canada, Trinity Western political-science professor Paul Rowe told the conference this country’s political climate has clearly had a chilling effect on Christians.

Rowe said the Liberal Party of Canada has been responsible for mobilizing the electorate along anti-religious lines, with the result that “Canada is far ahead of many other states when it comes to chilling Christian discourse.”

In an interview later he said, “The Liberal Party has long seen conservative Christians to be a soft target within the wider conservative movement. I recall a time when the debate over same-sex marriage was ramping up back in January 2005 and Liberal cabinet minister Pierre Pettigrew publicly stated that in this case the Roman Catholic Church should ‘butt out.’

Trinity Western political-science professor Paul Rowe says Canada’s political climate has clearly had a chilling effect on Christians.

“Since that time, it has become clear that certain views are not acceptable within the Liberal Party’s ranks, and more to the point, they will run directly counter to them in an effort to pillory so-called social conservatives.”

Whether or not Christians feel they can publicize their beliefs, there are “clear reasons that they need to remain quiet about them if they wish to gain access to public funding,” Rowe said, citing such examples as the Canada Summer Jobs program and pro-life organizations’ charitable status.

Moreover, he said, “the breadth of application of [Parliament’s] conversion-therapy ban also leaves many religious people uncertain whether they can affirm conservative religious views on sexuality without fear of prosecution, whether or not they formally engage in trying to persuade someone to diverge from their chosen sexual preferences.”

Rowe said each of these policies has had a chilling effect not only on Christians but also on people of other religious communities and even some of no religion at all.

‘In secular countries there is this death by a thousand cuts in the sense of having numerous smaller matters adding up to the larger issue of feeling under pressure for your faith and thereby having this chilling effect that I can’t say anything about my faith.’ Janet Epp-Buckingham, director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre

“Canada’s founders sought to downplay the natural religious polarization of this country between Protestants and Catholics in order to maintain our people’s unity,” he said.

“The instrumental use of religion as a wedge to ply apart Canadian society is dangerous. It signals that there is a minority which neither fully belongs in our society, nor should it enjoy the full privileges of citizenship.”

If people of faith are unable to express their opinions, they can’t fully participate in national debates and “our public life will be impoverished.”

B.C. educator Peter Nation, coordinator of Catholic Voices Canada, calls Canada one of the most authoritarian countries when it comes to political secularism and anticlericalism. “And it’s not just in the political and religious spheres that we [have to be] careful of what we say, but throughout all the cultural institutions of the West – schools, universities, businesses, media, sports, the law,” he said in an interview.

Nation, who gives presentations to Catholics about effective ways to respond to “woke” ideology, said the international study makes a valuable point: that many people are not even aware they are self-censoring.

Canadians in general and those on the West Coast in particular “have been living in our secular, materialist, as well as recently more-chilling left-wing culture for so long that we have simply got into the habit of not speaking our minds on any controversial issue if we think it might offend someone,” he said.

Restricting our own views is a far more serious problem than most imagine, said Nation, citing John Stuart Mill. “Freedom of opinion and freedom of  expression are ‘necessary for the mental wellbeing of mankind.’ Giving in to the chilling effect and self-censoring is not just damaging to ourselves but is undermining Western society as a whole.”

Catherine H, a Catholic public sector worker whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said in an interview that pressure to conform to secular values takes many forms. Her employer is now encouraging employees to identify in their emails their favoured pronouns (she/hers, him/his, they/their). So far she is refusing and hasn’t spoken out against it.

“It’s not mandated, but there’s always the fear, ‘What if I don’t?’” she said. “If that should come down to a condition of employment, then that’s very troubling.” 

She is hoping the fact her employment code of conduct includes respect for religious freedom will mean her right to refuse to embrace the “pronoun thing” will be respected.

The self-censorship issue arises at a time when more Canadians believe religious and conscience freedoms are being weakened than believe they are becoming stronger.

In a recent public-opinion survey by the Angus Reid Institute and the Ottawa-based Cardus think tank, a third of Canadians say they think freedom of conscience and religion is becoming weaker and only 25 per cent believe it’s becoming stronger. At 66 per cent, Evangelical Christians are most likely to say freedoms are weakening, while Catholics’ views differ little from the national average. 

Angus Reid and Cardus research says Canada is becoming less welcoming to religious views.

Twenty-two per cent of Canadians believe society does not make room for their personal faith or beliefs, while 31 per cent have an opposing point of view. Again, Catholic views are more in line with the national average, while Evangelical Christians feel most shut out. (See graphs.)

Regardless of polling data, Christian Elia, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said in an interview that one of the most common complaints his organization receives is Catholics feeling they are not able to express their beliefs and opinions in public.

“It’s one of the biggest things that the Catholic Civil Rights League has to try to combat against … the eradication of faith-based opinions – decisions and opinions based on faith – in the public square,” Elia said.

“Certainly our society tolerates dissenting viewpoints, but less and less.” And when those dissenting viewpoints are based on faith or religion, the tolerance is even lower, he said.

He often hears from frustrated Catholics who believe a form of totalitarianism is being imposed on Canadians. “I prefer to use the term ‘civic totalism,’ which is an expression that encompasses the increasingly widespread bowing down to the secular gods,” he said.  “It has the market cornered on majority opinion, and resistance is undesirable and, in a sense, futile.” 

How should Catholics respond? “The solution really is to be more Catholic,” Elia said. “Think about it. We are called to love our neighbour and we’re also called to love our enemies. We are called to reconcile faith and reason.”

While Catholics are called to live lives of humility, that doesn’t mean being silent. “Quite frankly, we have to remind people of the immense good that we do,” said Elia. “What if our hospitals and schools didn’t exist? Would Canada be a better society? Of course not.”

Results of the “chilling-effect” study point to another response: the need for more education. The researchers found that the more knowledgeable Christians are about their faith, the more they don’t self-censor. 

The report also concludes Catholics need to get serious about the situation. Despite having more members than any other denomination in the surveyed countries, the Catholic Church has “fewer members properly trained to deal with the chilling effect and self-censorship. One way to address this shortcoming is to redouble efforts to make their congregations more and better trained,” the report recommends.

It also says there is an “urgent need to educate policymakers, public servants (including police), and judges about religion to increase their religious literacy” to counter intolerance. More research and advocacy are also needed, it says.

Nation said the report’s findings underline the importance of Catholic Voices’ “Awake from Woke” presentations, which help Catholics identify ways that politically correct wokeness has permeated popular culture.

Next steps in the “Awake” process are constructively supporting Catholics in responding to woke ideology and then helping them improve their knowledge base and communication skills.

Only then will Catholics have the confidence and ability “to present the Church’s position in the public square.”

Vancouver church attacks rose last year

Anti-Catholic incidents directed against Archdiocese of Vancouver buildings last year was even higher than previously reported.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver has identified 13 acts of vandalism and threatening behaviour directed at Catholic facilities in the Vancouver area during the weeks following the late-May, 2021, detection of possible graves at an abandoned cemetery associated with the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The number of incidents is more than double the five previously reported. 

The compilation of the list was part of an annual report by Canadian dioceses of hate crimes against the Church for Canada’s Apostolic Nuncio and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Fire damage at the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Mission last year. (B.C. Catholic files)

The tallies will be forwarded to the international Office for Democratic Institutes and Human Rights, which produces an annual report on anti-religious hate crimes for the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Initial coverage of the explosion of anti-Catholic hate crimes last year noted only four incidents in the archdiocese, but a review of files at the Vancouver Police Department identified eight further incidents.

No one was injured in any of the incidents, and only one appears to have led to any criminal charges. Here are the incidents, in chronological order:

June 6: vandalism, John Paul II Pastoral Centre, Vancouver.

June 8: vandalism, John Paul II Pastoral Centre, Vancouver

June 12: vandalism, St. Augustine’s Church, Vancouver.

June 13: vandalism, St. Joseph’s Church, Port Moody.

June 28: vandalism, Oblate Provincial House, Vancouver.

July 1: vandalism, St. Jude’s Church, Vancouver. Twin sisters, Emily and Zoe Luba, were charged and convicted of mischief.

July 4: vandalism, attempt to set fire to Our Lady of Lourdes grotto in Mission.

July 16: two incidents of vandalism, Sacred Heart Church, Vancouver.

July 20: vandalism, St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, Vancouver.

July 20: suspicious behaviour, St. Augustine’s Church, Vancouver.

July 25: vandalism, St. Peter’s Church, New Westminster.

July 28: vandalism, St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, Vancouver.

Not included in the archdiocese’s report were several acts of vandalism directed at Protestant churches in Vancouver, as well as the arson destruction of St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Surrey, for which one woman, Kathleen Panek, 35, was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

Christian Elia, executive director of the Catholic Civil Right League, said in an interview with The B.C. Catholic that it is important for the Church to keep track of attacks against it and that Catholics have a responsibility to publicize attacks against the Church, just as they have a responsibility to engage in the public square and contribute to the public good.

“We have to rise to the challenge,” Elia said. “We have to continue to insist that our viewpoints are heard like every other Canadian in a robust pluralism – in a true pluralism. And we have to be insistent in the opposition to the desecration of our churches. We have to be vigilant on both files, otherwise complacency sets in and, really, does it make society better? No.”

His organization will add details of the additional Vancouver-area incidents to its online database of anti-Catholic hate crime in Canada at ccrl.ca/church-attacks-database.

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