Religious liberty under fire, even in the land of the free

  • November 22, 2011

BALTIMORE - Last week the bishops of the United States gathered in their premier diocese and protested the erosion of the founding liberties of the American republic. In their annual plenary meeting the bishops designated threats to religious liberty as a key pastoral concern. The American bishops are right to be alarmed, but not only them. Religious liberty is under threat all over the world.

The most grievous attacks are lethal, with Christians being killed for their faith in Egypt, Iraq and India, just to mention the sites of massacres in the last year. Then there is the routine and brutal persecution of Christians in communist states, like China, or Islamist ones, like Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the vast majority of acts of religious persecution around the world are against Christians.

Cognizant of the threats abroad, the American bishops are also alarmed at what is happening at home. In recent years, not unlike what has happened in Canada, religious liberties have been diminished by a secular fundamentalism promoted by the state. For that reason, the American bishops created a special committee for religious liberty, chaired by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport. I was appointed to that committee as a consultant, and so was here in Baltimore for our first meeting.

“We ask whether a genuine understanding of religious liberty still has a chance of shaping our society,” Bishop Lori said in addressing the assembly of his brother bishops. His concern is whether Catholic institutions will be able to continue their corporal works of mercy without having to compromise their doctrinal and moral teaching.

“We see a Church who, for all her challenges, serves the common good with extraordinary effectiveness and generosity,” Lori continued. “Think of the tremendous international relief work of our Church and its agencies in reaching untold numbers of people in desperate circumstances. In the dioceses that we serve, the Church is the largest non-governmental source of educational, social, charitable and health care services, offered as an integral part of our mission, offered as an expression of our faith in the God who is love. In a time of economic hardship, the services which the Catholic Church and other denominations offer are not only beneficial but indeed crucial, but it is becoming more and more difficult for us to deliver services in a manner that truly respects the very faith that impels us to provide them. … Among the challenges we see is a pattern in culture and law to treat religion merely as a private matter between an individual and his or her God. Instead of promoting toleration of differing religious views, certain laws, court decisions and administrative regulations treat religion not as a contributor to our nation’s common morality but rather as a divisive and disruptive force better kept out of public life.”

The idea is taking hold that citizens are free to worship behind closed doors as they wish, but any participation in public life must be on principles determined by the state. So in Massachusetts and Illinois, Catholic adoption agencies are being driven out of business if they don’t support same-sex marriage. Overseas development agencies are told that they cannot combat AIDS or human trafficking unless they also provide services contrary to the goods of life and love — abortion, sterilization and contraception. In Alabama a new law makes it a crime for religious agencies to provide basic food and shelter to illegal immigrants. Canadians could easily add our own violations of religious liberties to that list.

“While religion is indeed a personal matter, it is not a private matter,” said Bishop Lori. “There is no religious liberty if we are not free to express our faith in the public square and if we are not free to act on that faith through works of education, health care and charity, just as there is no freedom of speech if one is free to say what he or she believes only privately but not publicly through the media, the arts, libraries and schools.”

The same critical point was made by the Holy Father himself, who devoted his 2011 World Day of Peace message to the urgent question of religious liberty worldwide.

The American founding was a critical moment in the history of religious liberty. The American experience played a key role in the Church’s own understanding of religious liberty, given fullest expression in the eponymous declaration of the Second Vatican Council. So not only Americans, but Catholics around the world, ought to be anxious when religious liberty is under threat not only from tyrants, but in the land of the free itself.

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