Toward a Healthy Society

The Golden Thread of Faith

The Golden Thread of Public Faith: An Historic Freedom is an address given by Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett at the Launch of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute on May 9, 2018.

The Golden Thread of Public Faith: An Historic Freedom 

Address at the Launch of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute – May 9, 2018

The Nation and Human Dignity 

In 1981, in the midst of the national debate over the Constitution and its new Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Pierre Elliott Trudeau stated that “The Golden Thread of Faith is woven throughout the history of Canada from its earliest beginnings up to the present time.”

For a man such as Pierre Trudeau this statement not only reflected an acute understanding of this country’s history but also the central role that religious faith has played and continues to play within Canada's diverse communities. Indeed, the main streets of our villages, towns, and cities are a veritable architectural and historical record of successive waves of immigration of people of deep faith coming to this land. After arriving in Canada what were among the very first buildings erected to serve the community but churches, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras and temples. These edifices from the early 18th century church of Notre-Dame des Victoires in Old Quebec to the early 21st century Shri Swaminarayan Mandir of Etobicoke are physical affirmations of Trudeau’s Golden Thread. 

Yet this Golden Thread pre-dates European settlement. If we look at archeological sites such as the Huron-Wendat ossuary site at Turnbull, on the shores of Lake Couchiching we can gain an understanding of how Huron-Wendat burial practices revealed particular beliefs about the afterlife. Similarly, we can learn a great deal about the rich and complex cosmology of the Haida, Ts’msyan, and Kwakwaka’wakw first nations on the Pacific coast from their beautiful artistic traditions. 

Indeed, the Golden Thread stretches throughout our history - our history as the people of Canada, the Canadian nation. 

But what is a nation? 

Theorists of nationalism such as Benedict Anderson, Anthony Smith, and Will Kymlicka would highlight the importance of community, that the nation is a community that has in many instances a shared language, a shared history, a shared religious faith, a shared set of experiences as a people, a sense of a unique identity in contrast to others. A more civic nationality, such as we have in contemporary Canada, is perhaps shaped more by institutions whether they be political, social, economic, or cultural. Yet, at its most fundamental level the nation is a community of human beings, human beings who are called to live together and share a common life in this place. 

The Golden Thread is an aspect of this common life, a very important aspect because our religious faith, or for some a belief that is shaped by a secular philosophy, defines how we view and engage the world around us, and how we understand ourselves and those with whom we are called to be in relationship. But most importantly, our faith defines how we encounter that which is beyond ourselves; how we meet that metaphysical need that each one of us has: how we encounter God. This pursuit, this desire to be in communion with God must be given free rein in the human heart, mind, and soul -in our inner life in which we are always free. Yet, as Pierre Trudeau reminds us, the life of faith is not the interior life alone, rather it is the interior life lived out within community and in the public square. It is a life of faith that calls us to action, to acts of mercy, to establish educational institutions, to build public places of worship, to sacrifice the self for the good of the other. This is what Canadians of faith have done, are doing, and will do. 

We live our faith privately AND publicly. Our beliefs not only inform our actions but demand these actions from us. To enable us to continue to weave this Golden Thread, to live our public lives of faith freedom of religion is essential. 

Freedom of religion is indispensable for a vibrant common life. 

Freedom of religion is a requirement for a deep and authentic pluralism where difference is respected. 

Freedom of religion constitutes the very fibres of the tapestry through which the golden thread weaves. 

The Golden Thread – Religious Freedom in Canada

Let me know go into further detail about why we at the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute are so passionate about this fundamental freedom, this freedom that helps to ensure a vibrant and deep pluralism in Canada and undergirds our belief in the dignity of every human being.

It is not by sheer accident that freedom of conscience and religion appears as the first fundamental freedom in s. 2a of the Charter. If a citizen does not enjoy the foundational freedom to live and exercise religious beliefs publicly, and to have this freedom vigorously defended by all of our public institutions, then we cannot build a truly pluralist and diverse society where difference is viewed in a positive light.

In a truly pluralist democracy, acceptance of difference must include the right to hold different theological and different ethical and moral positions even when they go against the prevailing spirit of our age. So long as these views are held and advanced peacefully and do not advocate physical violence that would violate human dignity, they must be allowed to inhabit the public space.

Indeed, all faith communities along with political and ideological communities must commit to inhabiting the public space in peace. They must commit to engage in activities that have as their ultimate goal the promotion of human flourishing, recognition of human dignity, and an acceptance of different beliefs co-existing in the public square.

We must reject an illiberal totalitarianism that seeks to establish socially correct and acceptable beliefs treating any peacefully held contrary view as deviant and something to be silenced. There must be no totalitarianism of accepted belief or accepted ideologically-determined values in our country.

A true pluralism must embrace and enable difference, but not simply a subset of differences that may be permitted and emboldened by a given set of elites at a given moment in our history. This is an illiberal pluralism that embraces a closed secularism where the state imposes values and dictates what religious beliefs are publicly permissible. This faulty understanding of pluralism has been laid bare in the opposition by faith groups and even non-faith-based businesses to the mandatory attestation attached to the 201 Canada Summer Jobs grant application. 

A principal responsibility of the Government of Canada is to uphold the Constitution and to guarantee the freedoms that we bear as citizens. These freedoms are not the gift of government. They are neither the bequest of the State nor may they be manipulated. They are borne by us as citizens by virtue of our humanity. In upholding freedoms such as freedom of conscience or religion, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, and freedom of association, the government and the courts should have a very broad understanding of these freedoms and allow them to be largely free of restrictions except where such limits can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. 

Our society must be founded upon respect for difference, even when beliefs are so different that they are seen to run counter to the prevailing narrative of the day. The government must refrain from being too prescriptive of freedoms either within government institutions or in the broader society thereby imposing undue limits on freedom of expression, freedom of religion, or freedom of association.

To quote a prominent Ukrainian Greek-Catholic bishop and a personal hero of mine, Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris: “Democracy has many merits, but it does not determine the truth.” All of us as citizens along with our government, and it is our government, must pursue truth and the good, the common good. Pursuit of the common good Is predicated on the presence of a common life.

A common civic life without debate and encounter between us is no civic life at all.

Too often in our country these days we either shy away from engaging our fellow citizens or we engage them in a confrontational way, often via the perceived anonymity of, what I would say, is the profoundlydisconnected world of social media. This is emblematic of an increasingly uncommon life and it is not sustainable.

As Aristotle asserted in his Nicomachean Ethics, the pursuit of the common good is founded upon ensuring human flourishing. This understanding of what is at the core of our social, economic, and political lives has been affirmed by many since Aristotle including by St. Thomas Aquinas from my own Catholic tradition. 

I would assert that the common good of human flourishing must be at the very heart of our understanding of what pluralism is. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the advancement of human flourishing and the associated commitment to pluralism must be deeply rooted in the championing of human dignity above all else in our common life. I say above all else because this dignity comes from God.

In championing human dignity, we must not only recognize but also respect that we believe different things, and that we hold different views on what is most important in human life. Often these different views and beliefs are profoundly different and can cause us to feel ill at ease when we encounter them. Such beliefs when confessed might at times even raise our ire. So long as all that we say and do is said and done charitably, in a manner that is respectful of the other and their inherent human dignity, then we can agree to disagree.

Even in that disagreement we can encounter one another.

As a Catholic Christian, my understanding of the dignity of the human person is grounded in my belief that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. I believe that this reality was made present among us when God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, He who is fully human and fully divine, without commixture or confusion in His two natures and two wills, one in the Holy Trinity, one God in three persons. He is the Saviour and Redeemer of the World.

Now, many of you in this room reject this view and affirm a belief different, perhaps radically different, to my own. Likewise, I would reject what many of you believe. Yet, here we are, side-by-side, living in this place we call Canada, our country, where this Golden Thread of faith unites so many of us in our desire to know and be in communion with God. Our common life is enriched by our difference as well as by our shared goals for this country and, please God, for each other.

The freedom to practice one’s deeply held religious faith both publicly and privately is a freedom that implicitly advances and supports a true pluralism by protecting and continually upholding difference as something necessary for a genuine citizenship. 

To champion religious freedom is also to implicitly accept that there are those in our common life who will hold and will promote beliefs, theological and philosophical, moral, and ethical, that many of us will vehemently reject. And that’s okay. It is the proper role of the State to ensure that no one religious belief system, or for that matter a secular belief system, dictates what one must believe and what one must do. 

To compel belief in a set of contested values represents a grave over-reach on the part of government. It draws the veil back on certain totalitarian tendencies in our liberal democracy, something which the Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko has cautioned against in his work The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies.

Freedom of religion or conscience is essential in the development and defence of a diverse society where human beings are able to flourish and have their dignity acknowledged. How then does religious freedom reveal human dignity? 

As I have said on many occasions, but it bears repeating on this day, freedom of religion relates directly to the metaphysical need of every human being to freely contemplate and adhere to beliefs that answer these questions: “Who am I? Who am I in relationship to you? Who am I in relationship to the country and world in which I live? And, who am I in relationship to God, or to a particular philosophy to which I choose to adhere?” Freedom of religion is inherent to who we are as human beings.

More specifically, it can be argued that these questions ultimately define the relationship between religious freedom and human dignity. If our concept of freedom is purely one of economic, social, and/or political freedom divorced from this existential freedom then our participation in society will be frustrated. 

How we understand ourselves in a metaphysical sense cannot be divorced from our political, social, and economic selves. In one sense we might say that this Golden Thread weaves its way through the human person, binding together the various aspects of the person. Indeed, in most of the world religious faith defines political, social, and economic action. All of these freedoms speak to human freedom itself and its defence so as to enable human flourishing. 

The work we will undertake here at the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute will be founded upon and guided by the Christian imperative to advance the common good; to see the image and likeness of God in the other; and to take up the challenge of defending that human dignity as we seek to live out our public lives of faith. Yet we act upon this Christian Imperative in an hospitable way, reaching out to people of all faiths and of no religious faith who desire to live a vibrant public faith.

If Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Baha’is, or Jews are constrained in living out their faith through practice, they will become increasingly marginalized and our society will be increasingly atomized. The marginalization of people of faith and the diverse beliefs they profess can have two consequences, both of which hamper the further strengthening of our common life:

Firstly, such a marginalization impoverishes our public debate by pushing out valuable perspectives drawn from deep wells of religious tradition. In so doing, people who profess these traditions will view themselves as being undervalued within our political life, and the religious beliefs they deeply hold as being unworthy of public consideration. Their ability to fully exercise their citizenship is diminished as a result.

Secondly, as people of faith and their communities feel increasingly vulnerable and believe that they can no longer participate in the common life due to unreasonable constraints placed upon their faith and conscience, they may choose to check out of mainstream society altogether. While this may allow them to live their faith and support their faith-based institutions more-or-less independently, it represents a grave loss to our common life and is essentially a failure of our political society to embrace these citizens.

The State that acknowledges and respects religious freedom as being intrinsically linked to human dignity is a State that upholds true religious freedom. It respects the sovereignty of religious bodies and faith communities to exercise and act upon their faith freely and in good conscience both in public and in private. Likewise, members of all faith communities must respect the principles of our democratic society, in particular the rule of law exercised by the state insomuch as those laws are just, do not counter the moral law, and are ordered towards the common good and the flourishing of all members of society.

In building our common life we must seek to build a society in which people flourish and are able to live their lives of faith fully, both publicly and privately. In building this common life there must be the space to differ and not to defer, to have the freedom to live a public faith and not be driven to privatize one’s faith in order to be accepted in the public square.

A functioning democracy needs to be strong enough in its embrace of the rule of law, freedom, and human rights to guarantee that religious differences and differences in belief more generally - differences that often have sharp edges - can exist.

A functioning democracy protects and opens wide the public square for these disagreements to exist. The public square also beckons us, calling us to meet each other there, in our differences and our diversity, and to there encounter our shared humanity in solidarity with one another.

The Failure to Uphold Religious Freedom

Let me speak now about some of the specific challenges we face in our country in seeking to uphold and advance freedom of conscience and religion.

Choice is a great byword of today’s culture. To be pro-choice is to be “enlightened” because you are respecting the individual’s right to autonomy, to determine individual destiny.

Many in our society accept that this applies to women who choose to end pregnancy through abortion, or to young people who choose to self-select their gender.

Then why does the power of choice not extend to Canadians who want to choose not to make such choices? Why can they not choose faith-consistent healthcare that rejects abortion, euthanasia, and the fluidity of gender, and instead offers care that recognizes what true dignity and true compassion is: suffering with the human person whose dignity comes from within and is not subject to external propriety?

True, our State-funded system of health care in Canada, including for faith-based institutions, depends heavily on tax dollars. It is subject to statutes that regulate health care provision.

But by what logic of choice does that mean those who ascribe in all good faith to the dictum “Thou Shalt Not Kill” must subordinate their faith to those who choose to believe otherwise? Surely, if we truly value freedom of choice, never mind freedom of religion and conscience, then those who are guided by faith-based values and beliefs are as entitled any Canadian to have facilities embodying their choices.

Those who wish to kill themselves by assisted suicide are entirely free to go to a non-faith-based hospital, where someone will be happy to help them. Yet many Canadians of different faith backgrounds value something much more. They value the compassionate care they receive from Catholic, Jewish, and other faith-based facilities that uphold a true understanding of dignity and compassion to which euthanasia is anathema. They know the State will not hug you when you die at the hands of another out of misplaced compassion. For faith-based hospitals, ahugat natural death is the minimum.

As a Christian, I believe suffering is not meaningless, and does not lack dignity. As His Eminence Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto and a friend of this Institute has said, “A person who drools has no less dignity than one who does not.” For Christians, Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross was not the end, but the means by which he conquered sin, suffering, and death. His suffering was redemptive. Is suffering hard? Yes. Is suffering painful? Yes. Is it right to alleviate it as best we can through palliative care? Yes. Is it ever right to end it through assisted suicide? As Catholics, we say never, and never again. And we must be free to say that publicly and to be able to have our Christian belief in human dignity and and understanding of what is genuine compassion reflected in the health care we desire. The same must apply to all people of faith when they actively engage the public square.

And we, through the institutions that our forebears established and through those established by other faith communities in this country, insist our rights to freedom of religion and freedom of association, i.e., our to right to live out what we choose to believe,be upheld.

Simply because the State has made something legal does not make it obligatory, much less true. Witness slavery in the British Empire or other horrors of history which were all legalized, such as the hateful Nuremberg laws, yet remained objectively and gravely immoral.

Demanding that faith-based institutions bow before every choice of secular society, however immoral we consider them, is its own form of wrong. For while we live in the State, and pay taxes to it, we do not worship it. We worship God.

The Golden Thread – The Imperative of Public Faith

As I stated at the beginning, Pierre Trudeau’s Golden Thread is understood to refer to public faith -a faith lived in the agora, the public square, a faith lived along the cardus maximus. Let me speak now about the imperative of public faith as freedom of religion lived out.

To have a flourishing society where people feel that they can be fully themselves and can embrace the fullness of their citizenship, you cannot separate out a secularized civic or public life from a spiritual private life. We are a unity of body, mind, and spirit. We're tripartite human beings, but we cannot be chopped into pieces. I am called as a Christian to participate in the life of this country. I'm not called to separate myself off and live completely apart from society. Even hermits are involved in the life of the church, and they have an awareness of what is happening in society. As a Christian, I'm not called to completely separate myself from the society in which I live.

I'm called to be part of the polis. The polity that involves the institutions of our country, the rule of law, the championing of human rights, all of that must necessarily allow me, as a Catholic, to be fully myself publicly and privately. If I can't be fully myself, then first of all, I won't be able to fully contribute to the civic life of the country that we all share. 

Second, and connected to that first point, I will feel frustrated, and one reaction would be to retreat into a purely private life and not engage, because I would feel that the civic space didn't allow me to be present there. That's one response.

Freedom of religion necessarily and very deliberately interacts with other fundamental freedoms: freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. This freedom is so important because, if it's robustly defended and protections are afforded for public religious practice, then you provide the space in the public square for people to live out their religious beliefs publicly, and therefore to be fully themselves. They don't have to chop themselves into bits: the person I am when I'm at work, when I vote, when I serve in the military, when I'm praying. It's all one person, and to try and force people to divorce their deeply held religious beliefs and their faith from how they live the rest of their life is nonsensical. 

So, religious freedom is there not simply to protect people's right to worship in peace and security, their right to practice their faith publicly and privately, their right to change their religion, their right to not have any religious belief, but it's there I think even more fundamentally to provide that space in which people can be fully themselves where they don't have to separate their religious life from the rest of their life.

The desire to ensure that we all can inhabit that public square peacefully is a good one. The mistaken notion is that in order for that to happen, difference needs to be pushed aside or benignly suppressed because otherwise people will feel threatened and react violently. If the maintenance of order is the driving force for building your society, you're going about it in completely the wrong way. Rule of law is there because it affords a degree of order within society that ensures that our baser instincts don't take over. But our social and political telos is not order. It is the flourishing of humans who live together, and for that you need encounter. Our goal should be to live together in a way that is respectful, and in a way that ensures that we can recognize the humanity in one another. 

The faith traditions that exist in a wonderful sort of diverse patchwork in our country say very deep and profound things about what it means to be a human being. They might not all align, but they should be considered seriously. So, if we focus on the championing and upholding of human dignity with all of its depths and diversity as our telos, then I think order flows out of that.

It's all too common right now for people to want to immunize themselves from particular opinions or beliefs with which they disagree. They want to somehow shut themselves off from beliefs, opinions, words even, that they find to be a source of conflict. Now when you do that, you're not just cutting yourself off from opinions, you're cutting yourself off from the people who hold them, and you're saying to that person, "You don't count, because your opinion is anathema to me and so I don't even want to engage you." 

We have to draw a distinction between the beliefs that people hold that we might disagree with, and the fact that these beliefs are held by people. By human beings who, in the Judeo-Christian understanding, are created in the image and likeness of God. In many cases, as Christians we're able to find much greater common ground with faithful Muslims, faithful Jews, faithful Buddhists, and faithful Baha'is because we share an understanding of faith and what faith means. It's much harder these days to find that common ground with those who would advance a particular, highly secular, relativist sort of public reason. But that too must change because we must encounter the secularists and those who would seek to constrain and limit public faith and religious freedom. They too our created in the image and likeness of God and we must engage them in charity and truth.

It's very easy for us to get pulled into culture wars where we begin to demonize one another. Where we suddenly don't see the human in the person who is championing same-sex marriage, or who's defending the autonomy doctrine to the point of encouraging euthanasia as an option for end-of-life care. 

It's too easy for us to demonize people who hold these opinions. We might disagree fundamentally with the opinions and find them, and the impact that they're having on our society, absolutely abhorrent. But we can only seek to bring about the common good and to advance truth in our society if we communicate with one another. If we talk to one another. If we encounter one another in difference, and again focus on the identity of that person who you're in front of at that moment. This is a very difficult thing to do, but it is absolutely necessary.


Threads when woven together can create beautiful fabrics, rich tapestries, and join together separate and often different shapes and colours of cloth. If Pierre Trudeau’s statement about the Golden Thread is true, and I believe it is. Then it is our collective responsibility today more than ever to ensure that we preserve this Golden Thread of religious faith in the life of our country radiant and intact. The Cardus Religious Freedom Institute looks forward to playing a role in this important endeavour. We look forward to supporting so many partners in faith communities and faith-based advocacy organizations as they go about their important work in the public square. Please God we will succeed in upholding freedom of religion in our society and reaffirming the importance of a vibrant public faith. 

This must be our chief preoccupation today as people of faith as we live out our faith In Canada’s public square.

Thank you for your support. Thank you for your attention. Thank you for your presence here today and in the public square every day.

May God bless us and all of our endeavours.