Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Quick hits: bishops violating religious freedom, the media narrative on Benedict XVI

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 09, 2022

The Catholic bishops of Quebec are violating the religious freedom of their people. Who says so? They say so themselves!

Don’t take my word for it. Read the astonishing statement that the Quebec bishops released, responding to—and, however reluctantly, accepting—the rule that vaccination passports are required for entry into churches.

The bishops’ statement begins by welcoming the news that churches will be opened again. It then quotes the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, about the duty of the state to guard religious freedom. (As long as we’re talking about religious freedom, let’s ask the question: Why were the churches closed?)

In working toward this great reopening, the bishops report that they “insisted that people attending our assemblies be exempted from the requirement of the vaccination passport.” They “insisted,” they tell us. And yet…

The bishops’ insistence, the statement continues, reflects the fact that “many faithful believe that this requirement constitutes an intolerable discrimination that deprives unvaccinated people of their right to religious freedom.” Notice that word: intolerable. And while the bishops attribute this argument to “many faithful,” they conclude the paragraph with a simple affirmation of their own: “On this, we agree with them.”

So the vaccination passport is intolerable, it is a violation of religious freedom, the bishops insisted that it should not be imposed on churches. Can you guess how the next paragraph begins?


There follow several paragraphs about the “due limits” of religious freedom, the duty to protect the common good, the need for solidarity in the face of an epidemic. The bishops note that “we are challenged by the apostle Paul who reminds us never to stop supporting our rulers with our prayers.”

So have the bishops of Quebec changed their minds? Have they decided that the vaccine passport is justified in the current circumstances—that the requirement falls within the “due limits” on religious freedom? Are they admitting that they were wrong to insist on an exemption for churches? No. They allow that “it seems reasonable to us in the present circumstances to accept certain compromises,” but they do not retract their previous statements. Instead they announce a curious decision:

“For the moment, we accept that vaccination passports are required to access worship spaces, even if this measure upsets us deeply.”

The vaccination requirement “upsets” the bishops, who have already labeled it as a violation of religious freedom. They go on to say that “we remain in contact with government authorities to remind them that his requirement goes against our beliefs…”

The vaccination-passport requirement is intolerable, it violates religious freedom, it goes against our beliefs. And yet the bishops have accepted it. The faithful of Quebec have every right to be “upset” that public officials are engaged in a violation of religious freedom. But they should be outraged that their bishops have signed on as parties to the injustice.

There are, oddly enough, two different conferences of European bishops. One, the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE), includes the presidents of all the episcopal conferences on the continent. The other, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), represents the bishops of those countries that are members of the European Union. COMECE is unabashedly supportive of the EU and its leaders.

Yet there are limits. Yesterday COMECE released a statement criticizing French President Emmanuel Macron for his suggestion that the EU should endorse legal abortion as a fundamental human right. Perhaps we should be happy that the European bishops are defending the pro-life cause. But Macron made his suggestion in a speech on January 19; the COMECE response was dated February 8. Why did it take so long to respond to an outrageous proposal? And why was the COMECE statement so muted in its tone? Reasonable questions, I think. And there’s more.

Take a careful look at the sentence in which the bishops argue that acceptance of abortion would violate the fundamental principles on which the EU is based:

The founding fathers of the European Union, based on the genuine humanistic tradition that makes Europe what it is, were very conscious of the fundamental importance of the inalienable dignity of the human person as well as of community as common ground for our Union.

The key phrase here, to my mind, is “the genuine humanistic tradition that makes Europe what it is.” During the long debate over the EU constitution, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI argued insistently that what “makes Europe what it is” is not merely a humanistic tradition but more precisely a Christian tradition. The countries of Europe have many differences: historical, geographical, economic, political. They are not bound together by shared economic interests; those interests differ, and shift over time. What the European countries share is a common heritage, and that heritage is indisputably built around Christian faith.

The Popes lost that argument; the EU constitution makes no reference to the Christian heritage. But it is disappointing to see COMECE—the official presence of the Catholic Church in the EU—accept the bowdlerized version of European history, and refer to a bland “humanistic tradition” without any reference to its religious roots.

The founders of the EU were men of strong faith, who unashamedly brought their Christian convictions to their political work. Even if the EU as a body has strayed from that path, Catholic bishops should remain clear about the founders’ vision.

When Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI issued an apology for his handling of sex-abuse complaints, the media leapt to point out its inadequacies. Typical was an AP story that proclaimed: “Benedict’s lack of a personal apology or admission of guilt immediately riled sex abuse survivors…”

That statement simply cannot be squared with the actual words of the former Pope: “I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness.” Benedict did apologize; he did admit guilt. But to acknowledge those facts would interfere with the standard media narrative, in which Pope Benedict is portrayed as resisting reform, while Pope Francis is lauded as the reformer.

That narrative, like the skewed coverage of Benedict’s statement, runs counter to the facts. It was Pope Benedict who insisted on ridding the Church of what he termed the “filth” of abuse, who set up a system for judging cases of priest accused of abuse, who met repeatedly with victims to express his sorrow and offer his prayers.

Yes, Pope Francis has advanced the reforms. But Pope Francis has also defended accused priests, attacked the integrity of their accusers, given Vatican posts to priests and prelates accused of abuse and cover-ups. But the media do not hold Pope Francis to the same standards they set for his predecessor. He remains, somehow, portrayed as the champion of a reform that he has frequently undermined.

On the basis of a thorough investigation of the Munich archdiocese, the worst that can be said about Pope-emeritus Benedict is that he was aware of priests living in the archdiocese who had been convicted of abuse. He did not give them pastoral assignments; he did not cover up the evidence of their crimes. He has acknowledged that he might have done more, and for that he has apologized.

But as John Allen pointed out in Crux, the former Pontiff has not followed the “fairly standard playbook for a Catholic bishop.” He has defended himself against allegations (and implicit suggestions) that he regards, correctly, as unjust. He has interfered with the standard media narrative. For that he will not be forgiven.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Feb. 12, 2022 10:47 PM ET USA

    The Catholic bishops of Quebec's doubletalk meeting itself in a Moebius strip of verbosity is, simply put, reprehensible, odius, and heinous.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Feb. 10, 2022 7:49 PM ET USA

    Thanks for the concise demolition of the statement from the bishops of Quebec. As soon as they mentioned a document of Vatican II (in this case, the Declaration on Religious Freedom), one knew that that document must contain some ambiguous phrase that could be used to justify almost anything.

  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 09, 2022 7:10 PM ET USA

    Thank you for insightful comment on Pope Benedict's apology. It is clear that many bishops have been welcoming to priestly candidates with known deviant tendencies. In retrospective, it seems that the goal wasn't salvation of souls but rather forcing the Church to accept homosexuality. It resulted in grave harm and sudden loss of reputation suffered by entire Church. Pope B XVI - and St JP II - may have "not done enough" but, unlike the bishops open to wickedness, they had no sinful intentions.

  • Posted by: johnhinshaw8419405 - Feb. 09, 2022 10:50 AM ET USA

    The Quebec Bishops were the first to dissent from Humanae Vitae. Good to see "tradition" lives on in the Church.

  • Posted by: visions - Feb. 09, 2022 10:31 AM ET USA

    Pastor Arthur Pawlowski has been arrested 3 times for protesting against the vaccine mandates. His most recent arrest was yesterday, before he was able to speak with the truckers in Alberta. I could say more but pray for those who make you suffer Divine Mercy in My Soul. 1628. During Holy Mass, I saw Jesus stretched out on the Cross, He said to me, My pupil, have great love for those who cause you suffering. Do good to those who hate you. ……