In a strongly worded statement to American Catholics, Pope Francis declared that marriage between one man and one woman is “under attack from powerful cultural forces,” and urged Americans to defend “those freedoms upon which your nation was founded,” the cornerstone of which is “religious liberty.”
The message from Pope Francis, signed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was sent to participants in an international conference organized by the Knights of Columbus, which opened Tuesday in Philadelphia. The convention, attended by some 2,000 people, is being held in Philadelphia to prepare for Francis’ visit there next month for the eighth World Meeting of Families.
In his message, Francis said that that American Catholics have the duty as responsible citizens “to contribute to a conscious defense of those freedoms on which your nation was founded. The cornerstone of these freedoms is religious liberty.”
Religious liberty, the Pope insisted, is “not simply freedom of worship,” but guarantees to people and institutions “the freedom to speak and act in accordance with what their conscience determines.”
“To the extent that this freedom is threatened by invasive public policy or the growing influence of a culture that puts alleged personal rights above the common good,” Francis said, “we need a mobilization of consciences by all those citizens who, regardless of party or creed, are concerned for the overall welfare of society.”
The conference is focusing on persecuted Christians in the Middle East, and began with a pledge to coordinate efforts to assist Christians suffering as a consequence of the wars and terrorism plaguing Syria and Iraq.
“We have seen people killed, slaughtered,” said Syrian Archbishop Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria. “Women violated. Priests and bishops kidnapped. Churches and convents invaded.”
The protection of religious freedom, the Pope stated, “must engage the consciences of believers worldwide in response to the attacks against minority communities, mostly Christians, in various parts of the world.” He also thanked the Knights for “drawing public attention to this grave humanitarian tragedy.”
According to Grand Knight Carl Anderson, the chief executive of the Catholic fraternal organization, “Christians in the Middle East are facing a dire situation—even extinction.”
“In Syria, 700,000 Christians have been internally displaced” since the Islamic State began its brutal campaign last year to establish military and political control of the region, he said.
The Pope assured all present at the meeting of his cordial greetings and the assurance of his closeness in prayer. He also expressed “deep appreciation for the constant public witness that your order has led to our understanding of Christian marriage and the family.”
Francis reiterated that marriage is, in the plan of the Creator, “a natural institution, a covenant of love and fidelity between a man and a woman, ordained for their perfection and sanctification, for the future of our human family.”
Today, he said, “the institution of marriage is under attack by powerful cultural forces,” and the faithful are called to witness to the truth of marriage based on biblical faith and natural law, which is “essential to the wise and just ordering of society.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.