Religious persecution occurs in democracies

Religious persecution occurs in democracies

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò

We live in an age where most, but not all, Americans still share in the conviction that they are essentially a religious people. While current data suggests a progressive decline in religious belief across the Western world including the United States, there still appears to be deference given to the importance of religion.

But there are those who question whether religion or religious belief should have a role in public life and civic affairs. The problem of persecution begins with this reluctance to accept the public role of religion in these affairs, especially but not always when the protection of religious freedom involves beliefs that the powerful of the political society do not share.

Thus we are presented with the pressing question about whether the devoted religious believer, let us say the Catholic, can have a right to exercise citizenship in the most robust fashion when his or her views on civic concerns are informed by the faith.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution more than suggests an affirmative answer to this question. But we should not be satisfied with this recognition. After all, important figures, some of whom hold high public office, are speaking today about the right of freedom of worship, but their discourse fails to acknowledge that there is also a complementary right about the unencumbered ability to exercise religious faith in a responsible and at the same time public manner.

The Bishops of the United States conducted earlier this year the Fortnight for Freedom, and more recently in October 2012 a Novena for Life and Liberty, in order to elevate prayerful consciousness and other responsibilities of the faithful to ensure protection of the "First Freedom" cherished by the US.

One compelling catalyst for these initiatives is found in the legitimate concerns about religious liberty posed by the uncertainties surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, however, this is by no means the only source of concern.

When Catholic Charities and businesses owned by faithful Catholics experience pressure to alter their cherished beliefs, the problem is experienced in other venues. In short, the menace to religious liberty is concrete on many fronts. Evidence is emerging which demonstrates that the threat to religious freedom is not solely a concern for non-democratic and totalitarian regimes.

The UK Johns case

One illustration of interference with religious freedom recently surfaced in England which has a Christian past and for centuries was one place where Christianity flourished. The 2010 decision of an English court in the case of Johns vs. Darby City Council, Queens Bench Division, has essentially declared that an evangelical Christian couple is unfit to be legal guardians of foster children because of their faith which informs them that certain sexual expressions by consenting adults are sin.

Mr and Mrs Johns, a devout evangelical couple, had successfully and lovingly served as foster parents for needy children in the past. In spite of their previous exemplary service caring for children who needed love and protection, the civil authorities of the United Kingdom expressed grave reservations about the continuing suitability of Christians who firmly pursue their Christian faith.

As a result of the court's decision, the exercise of religious faith which is protected in theory by juridical texts is, in fact, subject to forfeit. As the judges noted in their decision, the belief of Mr and Mrs Johns is based on "religious precepts" which can be "divisive, capricious, and arbitrary."

Paradoxically, Mr and Mrs Johns were doing what is clearly protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – texts which the US claims to adhere to, and, in the case of the Covenant, is a party. The Johns' religious freedom was sacrificed to practices which are today considered "rights" by many well-educated persons but which are not mentioned in the applicable juridical texts, as is religious freedom.

If George Orwell were still alive today, he would certainly have material to write a sequel to his famous novel 1984 in which the totalitarian state, amongst other things, found effective means for distancing children from their parents and monopolising the control of educational processes especially on moral issues.

I am sure the Johns case will be discussed much more in the future. But we must take stock of the fact that the challenges to authentic religious freedom are not relegated to distant places such as England. My concerns about religious liberty and my efforts to protect them have a bearing on what is presently going on in the United States.

I am sure the Johns case will be discussed much more in the future. But we must take stock of the fact that the challenges to authentic religious freedom are not relegated to distant places such as England. My concerns about religious liberty and my efforts to protect them have a bearing on what is presently going on in the United States.

Over the past months, we have heard much about the legitimate reservations raised by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that pertain to authentic religious freedom and the proper exercise of faith in public. The issues and reservations identified by the Conference's president, Cardinal Dolan, about the health care mandate dealing with artificial contraception, abortion inducing drugs and sterilisation are very real, and they pose grave threats to the vitality of Catholicism in the United States. But we must not forget the other perils to religious liberty that America has experienced in recent years.

Once again, we see that the rule of law, in the context of the First Amendment and important international protections for religious freedom, has been pushed aside. Let me cite some examples of these other hazards.

A few years ago, the Federal courts of the United States considered the case of Parker v. Hurley in which a number of families were alarmed over the curriculum of the public schools in Lexington, Massachusetts (ironically one of the US cradles of liberty!), where young children were obliged to learn about family diversity as presented in a children's book that elevated as natural and wholesome same-sex relations in marriage.

The Parker family and other families, who are Judeo-Christian believers, wished to pursue an "opt-out" for their children from this instruction. While they may not have been aware of it, their sensible plan reflected sound and reasonable rights that are addressed and protected by international human rights standards which are echoed in the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, of the Second Vatican Council.

However, the civil authorities and the Federal courts disagreed with, and thereby denied, the lawful claims of these parents who were trying to protect their children from the morally unacceptable. If these children were to remain in public schools, they had to participate in the indoctrination of what the public schools thought was proper for young children. Put simply, religious freedom was forcefully pushed aside once again.

The Declaration on Religious Liberty, in section 5, asserts, as do the UDHR and the ICCPR, that parents have rights concerning the moral education of their children which reflect their religious beliefs. The courts deciding the Parker case did not even mention these obligations in their decision.

Proposition 8

More recently, we recall the federal court review of Proposition 8 in California. In the legal proceedings surrounding this initiative dealing with the meaning of marriage, Judge Vaughan Walker said this about religious exercise – a freedom enshrined in the US Constitution: "Religious beliefs that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful or inferior to heterosexual relationships harm gays and lesbians."

This "harm" cited by the judge became the basis for devising a mechanism used to minimise if not eradicate the free exercise of religion which includes the vigorous participation of the religious believer in public and political life.

On other fronts, we have witnessed Catholic Charities across the United States being removed from vital social services that advance the common good because the upright people administering these programs would not adopt policies or engage in procedures that violate fundamental moral principles of the Catholic faith. Furthermore, we have observed influential members of the national American community – especially public officials and university faculty members – who profess to be Catholic, allying with those forces that are pitted against the Church in fundamental moral teachings dealing with critical issues such as abortion, population control, the redefinition of marriage, embryonic stem cell commodification, and problematic adoptions, to name but a few.

In regard to teachers, especially university and college professors, we have witnessed that some instructors who claim the moniker "Catholic" are often the sources of teachings that conflict with, rather than explain and defend, Catholic teachings in the important public policy issues of the day. While some of these faculty members are affiliated with non-Catholic institutions of higher learning, others teach at institutions that hold themselves out to be Catholic. This is a grave and major problem that challenges the first freedom of religious liberty and the higher purpose of the human person.

An Englishman who found his way to the United States, Christopher Dawson (who became a Catholic in his early adulthood), still reminds us that the modern state, even the democratic one, can exert all kinds of pressure on authentic religious freedom.

Dawson insightfully explained that the modern democratic state can join the totalitarian one in not being satisfied with "passive obedience" when "it demands full cooperation from the cradle to the grave."

He identified the challenges that secularism and secular societies can impose on Christians which surface on the cultural and the political levels. Dawson thus warned that "if Christians cannot assert their right to exist" then "they will eventually be pushed not only out of modern culture, but out of physical existence." He acknowledged that this was not only a problem in the totalitarian and non-democratic states, but "it will also become the issue in England and America if we do not use our opportunities while we still have them."

While Dawson made his observations in the 1950s, we need to recall that Blessed John Paul II recognised the durability of the problems noticed by Dawson.

In his 1991 encyclical Centesi mus Annus, John Paul reminded us that "totalitarianism attempts to destroy the Church, or at least to reduce her to submission, making her an instrument if its own ideological apparatus." But he further noted that this threat is not solely expressed by the state established on dictatorship, for it can also be exercised by a democracy, for "a democracy without values easily turns into openly or thinly disguised totalitarianism."

New totalitarianism

Since the conclusion of the Second World War and the formation of the United Nations, democracies around the world have periodically exhibited traits of this new totalitarianism that emerges from a democracy-without-values, values that must be based on the timeless and universal moral principles adhered to and taught by our Church because these principles are founded on the Truth of Christ which came to set us free!

So, what can be done?

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, has recently exhorted the Catholic faithful to confront the challenges which the faith faces today. His brother bishops in this country and around the world have taken similar action. It is a desperate day when well-educated persons label these efforts as attempts by the hierarchy to control the activities of Catholics in public life. Some have even criticised publicly Cardinal Dolan's call to the faithful to defend the Catholic contribution to political debate in this fashion.

It is the proper function of bishops to be teachers of the faith, but it is also true that the laity exercise a major role in implementing this same faith in the affairs of the world. This is why John Paul repeatedly encouraged the faithful with the words of Jesus: "You go into my vineyard, too" (Mt 20:4).

In order to respond affirmatively to this call, religious freedom is essential.

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