Pope Francis and the Fortnight for Freedom

We are now in the middle of the Fortnight for Freedom, the two-week period of intense prayer, fasting, study and public witness that the U.S. bishops have asked all Catholics to live with regard to the defense, appreciation and promotion of religious freedom. 

Last Friday, the day before the Fortnight commenced, Pope Francis gave an address in the Vatican on the importance of religious freedom. There was a global scope to his remarks, but his five main points about the “very intense  debate about religious liberty” are highly relevant to what American Catholics are trying to illumine during this Fortnight. 

He first indicated that the right to religious freedom is essential to ensure man’s transcendent nature. 

“Reason recognizes in religious liberty,” the pope said, “a fundamental right of man that reflects his lofty dignity, that of being able to seek the truth and adhere to it, and it recognizes in it an indispensable condition to be able to display all his potential.” 

If the human person is not permitted to act in accordance with a well-formed conscience, then his growth will be stunted and he will never be free. 

Second, religious freedom isn’t merely the ability to go to church or pray at home but the capacity to live by faith. 

“Religious liberty,” the pope said, “is not only that of thought or private worship. It is freedom to live according to ethical principles consequent upon the truth found, be it privately or publicly.” 

This point used to be obvious to everyone, but the Obama Administration has made a coordinated effort in foreign and domestic policy to reduce freedom of religion to freedom of worship. The reason for this reduction, as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a 2009 speech, is to promote the “right” for people to “love in the way they choose.” In other words, to smooth the path of those of the same sex to marry each other, the U.S. government wants to restrict the rights of believers not to live according to the values of their revealed religions.

Pope Francis is reminding us that religious freedom includes the liberty to live publicly according to that faith’s moral principles — something that is being denied not just in fundamentalist Muslim regions or communist countries but also in aggressively secular ones. 

Third, religious freedom is being undermined precisely by many trumpeting tolerance and freedom. 

Religious liberty, he indicated, “is a great challenge in the globalized world, where ‘weak thought’ also lowers the general ethical level, and in the name of a false concept of tolerance ends up by persecuting those who defend the truth about man and the ethical consequences.” 

This “weak thought” includes, along with nihilism, an intellectual and moral relativism. At first there is a push for “tolerance” of what was formerly morally censured but then ends in intolerance and persecution of those who don’t progress beyond acquiescence to acceptance and approval. 

The pro-choice movement, for example, originally just asked for the “freedom to choose” abortion, but now seeks to force all doctors and nurses to be trained in abortions and all citizens to pay for it. Those pushing for marriage between those of the same-sex first asked just for tolerance but now push for the resignation of those, like ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who defend Marriage as the union of a man and a woman. 

Fourth, without religious freedom, a democracy is sick and undermines its own legitimacy. 

Political and judicial bodies, the pope insisted, “are called to recognize, guarantee and protect religious liberty, which is intrinsically inherent right to human nature and is also an indicator of a healthy democracy and one of the principal sources of the legitimacy of the state.” 

In the Bill of Rights, the United States recognized, guaranteed and protected religious liberty, but recent offenses against this first and fundamental freedom show that our republican democracy is not strengthening but sickening. 

Fifth, attacks against the religious freedom of Christians are not only the most common today but the most ignored. 

“It is for me a reason for great sorrow,” the pope lamented, “to see that Christians in the world endure the greatest number of such discriminations. The persecution against Christians today is in fact stronger than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs than at that time.” 

More Christians have been martyred in the last 100 years than in all previous 19 centuries combined.

The type of deadly persecutions he’s describing are happening mainly in fundamentalist Muslim regions, but they flow from the same denial of the right to religious freedom that is spreading like cancer in supposedly free secularist nations where the last acceptable prejudice among elites, Christianophobia, is enabling it. 

If the types of school and church bombings, kidnappings, and massacres happening routinely to Christians in various parts of the world were happening to Jews, gays or women, there would justifiably be a media and international obsession about it. The fact that they happen unabated with most ignoring it ought to be as “incomprehensible,” “worrying” and “unacceptable” to all of us as it is Pope Francis. 

The Fortnight for Freedom is a time for all Catholics in the United States to ponder these realities, to pray, and to get involved to help nurse our nation back to the health Pope Francis indicates. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River. fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.

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