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Pope Francis: Secular States Must Protect Religious Liberty

After Monday’s big victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor against Obamacare, Pope Francis has made a robust case for religious freedom, arguing that it is absolutely essential for a modern secular state.

In a long interview with the French Catholic daily La Croix, Francis contended forcefully that a pluralistic, secular state is a good thing, as long as it firmly defends freedom of conscience and religion.

“A state should be secular,” Francis declared, because “confessional states end up badly and are a-historical.”

“I think that secularity accompanied by a solid legislation guaranteeing religious freedom offers a model for moving forward,” he said.

According to the Pope’s reasoning, religious freedom and a healthy pluralism go hand in hand with the Christian belief in the fundamental equality and dignity of all human persons.

“As children of God, we are all equal with our dignity as persons,” Francis said. “But each one should have the freedom to express his faith. If a Muslim woman wants to wear a veil, she should be able to. In the same way, if a Catholic wants to wear a cross. Everyone should be able to profess his faith–not outside the culture, but at the very heart of the culture.”

Even in the case of legislation allowing such things as euthanasia or same-sex marriage, Francis said, people of faith should be able to opt out, without suffering negative repercussions.

Asked about these specific cases, Francis argued that they should come as a result of the democratic process. Once a law has been voted in by the people, he said, the State should still “respect the consciences” of citizens. “In every juridical structure,” he maintained, “conscientious objection should be present, since it is a human right.”

In case there should be any doubt, he added that “this is also true for a government official, who is a human person as well.”

Summing up, the Pope declared that such a state would be living a “true secularity.” It’s not right to disparage or discount the opinions of religious people in society, he said, just because they are “grounded in Christian thought.”

In this regard, the Pope addressed the situation of France, noting that the one criticism he would offer is that the country tends to “exaggerate its secularism [laïcité].”

“This comes from a way of considering religions as a sub-culture rather than an integral part of culture. I fear that this approach, which is the offspring of the Enlightenment, endures to this day,” he said.

“France must take a step forward in this regard and accept that openness to transcendence is a right for everyone,” he said.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter   

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