In his apostolic voyage to Canada, Pope Francis apologized for the acts of abuse committed against Indigenous Peoples by Catholics and other political leaders in Canada’s residential school system. The Holy Father movingly apologized and begged forgiveness for attempts to eradicate indigenous culture and customs. In his meeting with the indigenous community, Pope Francis offered these compelling words: “It may seem easier to force God on people, rather than letting them draw near to God. This is contradictory and never works, because that is not how the Lord operates.”
Pope Francis likely reflected on the Church’s teaching on religious freedom when preparing his speech. The Second Vatican Council authoritatively teaches that the human person has a right to religious freedom and each person must be immune from coercion. Proselytism and the forced conversion of individuals not only violates human dignity, but remains inefficacious. While the primary agent of faith is ultimately God, supernatural virtue requires the free cooperation of man in response to God’s grace. Otherwise, faith lacks salvific efficacy.
At the same time, however, the Holy Father’s apology in no way undermined the evangelical mission of the Church. The Second Vatican Council also taught that its declaration on religious freedom leaves “untouched” traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ. In its Decree Ad Gentes, the Council fathers reiterated that as the universal sacrament of salvation, the Church “strives ever to proclaim the Gospel to all men.” The Pope’s lesson in Canada, and the teachings of the Council, are clear. One cannot force someone to make an interior act of faith, for this violates human dignity, and simply won’t work. But at the same time, the Church has the freedom – and the duty – to proclaim Christ, so that all men might be saved. We read in the Acts of the Apostles, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
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