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January 25, 2019 — Yesterday, Thursday January 24th, lawyers for Fr. Tony van Hee received word that his personal trial following his arrest last October would be set for July 2020, and that the constitutional challenge to Ontario Bill 163 (2017), under which Fr. Van Hee has been charged for protesting within a 50-metre "exclusion zone" before an Ottawa abortion clinic, will be allowed to proceed independently. At the time of his arrest, Fr. Van Hee was facing away from the clinic entrance and towards Parliament Hill, and was wearing placards witnessing to the right to freedom of speech. In light of the fact that commentators and journalists in anglophone print and social media have recently picked up this news, the Jesuits of Canada make the following statement:

The defence of life and its dignity, from the moment of conception to the grave, is one of the cornerstones of Catholic social teaching. Jesuits in Canada have witnessed to this teaching in the past by providing sanctuary and support for refugees, by accompanying persons facing death in their homes or in palliative care facilities, by serving as hospital and prison chaplains, by accompanying gay and lesbian Catholics as they seek to live out their faith, by engaging wholeheartedly in the Truth and Reconciliation process, by engaging in consciousness-raising and letter-writing campaigns on various issues, by offering moral and spiritual counsel to women who are considering abortion and to those who have had an abortion, and — in the person of Fr. Tony van Hee and others — by continuing to hold peaceful vigils to remind Canadians and their political leaders of the sacred gift of life itself.

From the beginning, Fr. Van Hee’s witness has consistently been addressed to lawmakers and parliamentarians. The constitutional challenge is over freedom of expression; it is not about endangering women. Indeed, Fr. Van Hee would not have received his superiors’ permission for his ministry over the years had this been the case. The challenge must not result in a situation where the physical or psychological well-being of women is endangered; proportionate legal means must be found to protect women at risk. We remind everyone who is concerned with a genuine defence of all life, from conception to the grave, that physical and psychological harassment can never be authentic Gospel strategies to defend life.

The Society of Jesus knows that, sadly, various groups have begun and will continue to manipulate the meaning of Fr. Van Hee’s ministry for the sake of partisan political gain. We condemn such manipulation and appropriation unequivocally. It damages the civic friendship that is the foundation of the common good affirmed by Catholic social teaching and defended by the Canadian Constitution, and can never be approved as part of a truly Catholic approach to social justice.

In many parts of Canada, Catholics have been divided over how best to uphold the moral autonomy of women as agents of their own lives, while protecting the lives of children in the womb. Violent rhetoric from many quarters has deepened a sense of alienation, for some from the Church, and for others from Canadian society. This very division and alienation is a sign that we are not, as Catholics, converted fully to the way of Christ. As so many teachers of the faith have reminded us in recent decades, the moral consequences of the Gospel form a “seamless garment”. If we are tearing that garment apart, then we have not gone far enough or deep enough in our reflection and action.

Pope Francis has, in recent years, tried to help the Church articulate a way beyond the impasse. He has reminded us that we must recover a robust awareness of the prudent and merciful discernment that is needed when we use the universal moral doctrine of the Church to understand particular cases. This discernment avoids both abstract rigorism and lax interpretations that negate moral principles; it involves a careful and wise sifting that patiently discovers which teaching applies to the present situation and how it is to be applied. What is true for the confessor is also true for all of us in our action for justice in the world.

Canadian civil society and our political leadership must find a new path that fosters the empowerment of women and social minorities of all kinds without threatening the life of unborn children, and that protects the human rights of all. Canadian Jesuits don’t have the answers, but we want to be at the service of all Canadians as we engage these difficult challenges.

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