Today, we conclude Religious Freedom Week.
The theme this year is “Strength in Hope.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops invites us to “pray, reflect and take action on religious liberty, both here in this country and abroad.”
Freedom of religion shouldn’t be an issue for only bishops, Catholics or even believers. It is a core freedom, and it is essential to understanding the origins and history of this country. And it is the issue behind many of the current conflicts in the world – and it marked each of the apocalyptic catastrophes we saw in the past century, too.
On June 22 in Madrid, Cardinal Angelo Becciu beatified 14 Conceptionist nuns who died as martyrs during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. That was another reminder of the bloody history of the last century that produced more Christian martyrs than did the persecutions in the Roman Empire.
Sadly, the bloodshed continues now in the Middle East, Nigeria, Myanmar and many other places around the world. The American bishops asked us to pray for persecuted Christians —and other persecuted believers — in those countries and for religious freedom all over the world, including in this country.
While the persecution and religious cleansing in some parts of the world are the worst violations of religious liberty today, they are not the only violations taking place. That’s why our bishops urged us to pray also for “religious freedom for incarcerated persons,” “faithful public servants,” for “freedom to serve in foster care and adoption” and for “religion: a public good.”
The absence of active and violent persecution is just the first step toward freedom of religion.
In a country like the United States, where freedom of religion is engraved in the Constitution, people worship without being persecuted. But in our times, the concept of separation of church and state is understood by many as a ban on public displays of religious beliefs. Every day we hear of new demands to reduce religion to a private matter.
This past week, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of keeping in place the 40-foot cross of a World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Md. For almost a century, the cross had stood before some motorists were offended by its presence and demanded its destruction. Curiously enough, people who demand the removal of public religious displays usually see themselves as
champions of tolerance.
We live in a society in which religion — and Christianity, in particular — is often seen as an enemy of freedom and progress.
The sexual scandals of recent years in the Catholic Church have helped reinforce all the negative stereotypes about organized religion. The moral authority of the church, her capacity to spread the Gospel and even the social services she offers have been diminished as a result of the sexual-abuse scandals. It is a painful fact.
It is also true that there has been a lot of justified outrage at the church. But there are also sectors of our society that despise the countercultural voice of the church and actively try to diminish it.
Self-proclaimed defenders of freedom and diversity sometimes have a hard time dealing with a dissenting voice. And the voice of the church, in any society, should not always comply with social norms.
The constant efforts to reduce the presence of religion in the public arena is an attack against the freedom of every person. And it also diminishes the richness of the society as a whole. Defending religious freedom is defending the very essence of freedom.