Religious Freedom, the Immediate Work of a Lifetime

George Weigel today speaking to graduates of Benedictine College in Kansas:

one of the great challenges of your generation … will be to rise to the defense of religious freedom in full. And, indeed, what could be a more apt challenge for the graduates of a college named in honor of the saint whose inspired vision and evangelical vision saved the civilization of the classical world when it was in danger of being lost? What better challenge for the graduates of Benedictine College, named for one of the patrons of Europe, whose life-work saved the West as a civilizational enterprise built from the fruitful interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome?

For the defense of religious freedom in full which you must mount must be both cultural — in the sense of arguments winsomely and persuasively made — and political, in that you must drive the sharp edge of truth into the sometimes hard soil of public policy.

What is this “religious freedom in full” that you must defend and advance?

It surely includes freedom of worship, but it must include more than that; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is content with freedom of worship, so long as the Christian worship in question takes place behind closed doors in the American embassy compound in Riyadh. Religious conviction is community-forming, and communities formed by religious conviction must be free, as communities and not simply as individuals, to make arguments and bring influence to bear in public life. If religiously informed moral argument is banned from the American public square, then the public square has become, not only naked, but undemocratic and intolerant. If, on the other hand, religiously informed moral argument is welcome in public life, then we have the possibility of rebuilding, not a sacred public square (a goal the Catholic Church rejected at the Second Vatican Council), but a civil public square, in which tolerance is rightly understood as differences engaged within a bond of civility formed by a mutual commitment to reason.

It is a matter of both political common sense and democratic etiquette that Catholics in public life should make our arguments in ways that our fellow-citizens, who may not share our theological premises, can engage and understand — which is to say, in our particular case, that Catholics should bring to bear in public life the moral truths we hold through arguments framed by the grammar and vocabulary of the natural moral law. That is what John Paul II did at the United Nations in 1979 and 1995. That is what Benedict XVI did at the in 2008 and in the German Bundestag in 2011. That is what the bishops of the United States, and lay Catholics in their millions, have done over the past four decades in defense of life. And if there are some who consider such appeals to the natural moral law a form of tarted-up bigotry, well, we shall simply have to inform them, politely but firmly, that they are mistaken, and then demonstrate why.

Religious freedom in full also means that communities of religious conviction and conscience must be free to conduct the works of charity in ways that reflect their conscientious convictions. This is neither the time nor the place to discuss the problems that have been posed by tying so much of Catholic social service work and Catholic health care to government funding — save, perhaps, to note that these problems did not exist before the Supreme Court erected a spurious “right to abortion” as the right-that-trumps-all-other-rights, and before courts and legislatures decided that it was within the state’s competence to redefine marriage and to compel others to accept that redefinition through the use of coercive state power. What can be said in this context, and what must be said, is that the rights of Catholic physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals are not second-class rights that can be trumped by other rights-claims; and any state that fails to acknowledge those rights of conscience has done grave damage to religious freedom rightly understood. The same can and must be said about any state that drives the Catholic Church out of certain forms of social service because the Church refuses to concede that the state has the competence to declare as “marriage” relationships that are manifestly not marriages.

My fellow-graduates, your defense of religious freedom is going to require the skills of reasoning and argument that you acquired here at Benedictine College. It is going to require that some of you accept the risk and challenge of public service in elective office. And it going to require all of you to support those who take, as their vocation, the defense and promotion of religious freedom in full.

This will be the work of a lifetime. But it must begin sooner rather than later, for the threats to religious freedom among us are great, and many of them are deeply embedded in postmodern American culture. This work will not be without cost. Some of you may suffer various forms of martyrdom in taking up this cause: the martyrdom of ridicule, of being labeled “intolerant” and “bigoted”; the martyrdom of career paths blocked and promotions denied because of your adherence to the moral truth of things; the martyrdom of political defeat, or a judicial case well-argued but lost. Fidelity to the truth can have its costs. Yet as Blessed John Paul II taught young people all over the world, those costs are worth paying because the truth sets us free in the deepest sense of human liberation. Thomas More, patron saint of Catholics in public life, was never more a free man than when he bent his neck to the executioner’s axe in free adherence to the truth.

Read his full remarks here.



  • EDGAR29

    The Holy Father today spoke to the Diplomatic Corps to the Vatican. This is an annual event to all diplomats accredited to the Holy See. In his address, among other things, he addressed religious freedom. Here is an excerpt:
    In this perspective, it is clear that an effective educational programme also calls for respect for religious freedom. This freedom has individual, collective and institutional dimensions. We are speaking of the first of human rights, for it expresses the most fundamental reality of the person. All too often, for various reasons, this right remains limited or is flouted. I cannot raise this subject without first paying tribute to the memory of the Pakistani Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, whose untiring battle for the rights of minorities ended in his tragic death. Sadly, we are not speaking of an isolated case. In many countries Christians are deprived of fundamental rights and sidelined from public life; in other countries they endure violent attacks against their churches and their homes. At times they are forced to leave the countries they have helped to build because of persistent tensions and policies which frequently relegate them to being second-class spectators of national life. In other parts of the world, we see policies aimed at marginalizing the role of religion in the life of society, as if it were a cause of intolerance rather than a valued contribution to education in respect for human dignity, justice and peace. In the past year religiously motivated terrorism has also reaped numerous victims, especially in Asia and in Africa; for this reason, as I stated in Assisi, religious leaders need to repeat firmly and forcefully that “this is not the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction”.4 Religion cannot be employed as a pretext for setting aside the rules of justice and of law for the sake of the intended “good”. In this context I am proud to recall, as I did in my native country, that the Christian vision of man was the true inspiration for the framers of Germany’s Basic Law, as indeed it was for the founders of a united Europe. I would also like to bring up several encouraging signs in the area of religious freedom. I am referring to the legislative amendment whereby the public juridical personality of religious minorities was recognized in Georgia; I think too of the sentence of the European Court of Human Rights upholding the presence of the crucifix in Italian schoolrooms. It is also appropriate for me to make particular mention of Italy at the conclusion of the 150th anniversary of her political unification. Relations between the Holy See and Italy experienced moments of difficulty following the unification. In the course of time, however, concord and the mutual desire for cooperation, each within its proper domain, prevailed for the promotion of the common good. I hope that Italy will continue to foster a stable relationship between Church and State, and thus serve as an example to which other nations can look with respect and interest.
    I found his statements,“… the first of human rights, for it expresses the most fundamental reality of the person” (referring to religious freedom) and “Religion cannot be employed as a pretext for setting aside the rules of justice and law for the sake of the intended “good”, to be worth our consideration.
    He goes on to describe the injustices that Christians are facing in many parts of the world, and the marginalization of the role of religion in the life of society, and the misattribution of intolerance to religion in contemporary social life.

  • Albert

    President Obama’s comments on marriage are deeply concerning, as is his recent assault on religious freedoms. The President continues to challenge the constitution and other institutions like the Catholic Church. These attempts to “change” the world could have extremely detrimental impacts upon our society. Don’t get me wrong, I am not stating that change is bad. Change is a mutual compromise that requires tremendous amounts of discussion, listening, time and give and take on both sides. Change is not force feeding. Change is good if done for the right reasons.

    In this case, unfortunately, President Obama’s motivations could be off. His driving goal, at the moment, is to get re-elected. The pressure upon him to accomplish that goal is huge, to say the least. Pressure of that magnitude placed upon anyone can skew motivations, and make one do and say things that are strictly geared towards the accomplishment of that goal, to get re-elected. I am not certain, but maybe in this case President Obama may be attempting to re-direct attention away from the ailing economic conditions or other things, not certain but it is a possibility.

    Nevertheless, fighting to protect our constitution, the Catholic Church, marriage, our freedoms and moralities provided by institutions that have provided us with a great country, and a great faith, should be taken on by every US citizen.

    As Catholics we have been baptized with a duty to evangelize. Pray for the President to uphold the just and the good. Pray for each one of us to have the strength to respond responsibly to the values upon which our faith is built, so that we all may become part of the solution in serving God and all His wonderful creations, each one of us.



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