Religious Liberty Hallmark of Pope’s U.S. Visit

Pope Francis arrives to deliver a speech to the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2015, at UN headquarters in New York. AFP PHOTO/Dominick Reuter (Photo credit should read
Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis says “religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom” are “pillars of integral human development,” his most recent in a chain of appeals for religious liberty during his U.S. visit.

The question of religious freedom, in fact, has emerged as a central theme in the Pope’s message during his visit to the United States, with references to it in nearly every single speech the Pope has made, including his address to the United Nations on Friday.

In his speech at the White House Wednesday morning, the Pope reserved some of his strongest language for the problem of threats against religious freedom in America and called religious liberty “one of America’s most precious possessions.”

While recognizing that “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive” and to rejecting “every form of unjust discrimination,” the Pope immediately added that this openness to diversity must be balanced with respect for religious persons’ “deepest concerns” and “their right to religious liberty.”

“That freedom,” Francis said, “remains one of America’s most precious possessions” and all are called to be vigilant “to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”

In a veiled reference to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States, the Pope said he would travel to Philadelphia “to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this, a critical moment in the history of our civilization.”

In this regard, the Pope also made explicit reference to the concerns of U.S. conference of Catholic bishops, backing in this way their efforts to secure religious exemption for citizens and groups that find themselves required to act against their moral conscience.

Later on Wednesday, in fact, Pope Francis had an unscheduled meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community of nuns who have been engaged in a major legal battle against the Obama administration’s HHS contraception mandate.

Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters that the Pope met with the religious sisters as “a sign of support” for them in their lawsuit against the Obama administration.

On Thursday, the Pope addressed a joint session of Congress in which he said that “religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society,” adding that “it is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard.”

Along with holding up religious liberty as a pillar of society before the UN on Friday, the Pope also condemned the persecution of Christians and members of other religions, especially in Africa and the Middle East, who “have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property.”

Even before arriving on American soil, the Pope began speaking of religious freedom, and contrasting it to the narrower concept of “freedom of worship,” that would limit the practice of faith to what is done in the confines of a church or synagogue.

In his address at Havana’s airport upon arrival Saturday, Francis offered an oblique reference to the restrictions that Cuban religious believers experience, such as surveillance and harassment by security services and workplace discrimination.

Francis urged the Church to “continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in its hopes and concerns,” and then expressed hope that the Church will be permitted to act “with the freedom and all the means needed to bring the proclamation of the Kingdom to the existential peripheries of society.”

Commenting on that line later in the evening, the Vatican spokesman, Father Lombardi, said it reflects a broader understanding of what religious freedom is all about.

“The idea of religious freedom the pope talks about, in the name of the Church and [other] religions, is not only freedom of worship,” he said, but “includes the possibility of [the Church] actively expressing in society its mission of charity.”

“The Church wants to have an active, positive, and constructive presence for the common good,” Lombardi said.

This view of the breadth and importance of religious liberty stands in stark contrast to the position of the Obama administration.

In June, veteran reporter John L. Allen blasted John Kerry and the State Department for radically discounting Christian persecution in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014.

Allen, author of the 2013 bestselling book The Global War on Christians, found that in general, “religion is undervalued throughout the State Department report” and that part of this undervaluing comes from the administration’s demotion of religious liberty to a second-class right. While listing seven categories of human rights problems, it treats religious freedom “as a mere sub-heading” under respect for civil liberties.

Though the President paid lip service to religious freedom in his speech before the Pope on Wednesday, the Obama administration’s conscious decision to downgrade religious freedom does not bode well for people of faith in America.

Saint John Paul II famously referred to religious liberty as “the source and synthesis” of all human rights, since it means “the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person.” When it is treated as a mere afterthought rather than the foundational right it is, religious liberty will always be trumped by other rights.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the Pope’s U.S visit, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBT activist group, released a list of demands, complaining that Catholic institutions like the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have begun firing LGBT personnel who have come out publicly in opposition to Church teaching on human sexuality.

Like the Obama administration, the organization reduces religious liberty to mere “freedom of worship,” and thus is able to contend that the Church discriminates when dioceses and parishes fire teachers when they come out publicly against Church teaching on human sexuality and marriage.

The Human Rights Campaign, which brings in up to $50 million a year in donations, has led lawsuits against governments and companies they see as discriminating against LGBTs. The group also produced a document labeling those who defend traditional marriage, including apparently Pope Francis, as hateful extremists.

Pope Francis is visiting the U.S. at a time when the faithful are facing broad challenges in court over the limits of religious liberty.

From the administration’s contraception mandate under Obamacare to the fallout from the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, church-affiliated institutions and individuals are facing litigation that would compel them to carry out actions contrary to their religious beliefs.

At least 40 cases are currently working their way through the federal courts in which nonprofit organizations are seeking exemptions from the contraception mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the midst of this flurry of litigation, which can only increase in the coming months, the Pope’s message of a robust religious freedom to act according to one’s beliefs cannot have come at a more opportune moment.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome