September 23, 2015
Guest Commentary: Keeping The Light On For Pope Francis
By Archbishop William E. Lori
This week, the people of the United States are welcoming Pope Francis during his historic visit. Many of us, Catholic or not, have been moved by his words and actions, which call on us to acknowledge and defend the inherent dignity of every human being, including immigrants and refugees, the poor and homeless, victims of environmental catastrophes, and so many others.
Human dignity is also why the pope has been outspoken about religious freedom. As he puts it, "In the end, what kind of dignity is there without the possibility of freely expressing one's thought or professing one's religious faith?" Religious freedom is the cornerstone of any society that acknowledges human dignity; in the United States we call it our "first freedom."
Part of the inherent dignity (and beauty) of being human is the capacity to seek truth and to live in accordance with that truth. This fundamental freedom—not only of belief and worship, but of action outside the sanctuary—is not a privilege given to citizens by the state. It is a universal human right, one that exists at all times and places, whether a state recognizes it or not.
And tragically, many do not. Across the globe, people are suffering severe religious persecution. We are horrified when we learn of violence against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq, Syria, Kenya, Nigeria, and so many places throughout the world.
In our own country, we are thankful for our own freedom to exercise our faith without fear of violence. We are free to bring the wealth of wisdom from our religious traditions into the public square, to bear witness to the truth as we have come to understand it. We are free to express our faith openly in the form of our care for migrants, the poor, the sick, and the elderly—what we Catholics call "corporal works of mercy."
The pope recently encouraged the church in Cuba to "continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in its hopes and concerns, with the freedom and all the means needed to bring the proclamation of the kingdom to the existential peripheries of society." The legacy of religious freedom here in the U.S.—where the Church has built extensive and far-reaching charities, schools, and health care institutions over many decades—stands as a great achievement, a national treasure that we inherit not only with gratitude and joy, but a great sense of responsibility.
We must always ask ourselves: Are we doing our part to keep the beacon lit? In recent years, religious freedom in this country has come under threat, as federal, state, and local governments have sought to coerce people from all walks of life into violating their consciences.
Family-owned businesses have been told that they cannot operate in accordance with their deeply held convictions, whether about the sanctity of life or the nature of marriage. Judges, clerks, and other government officials face losing their jobs (or worse) if they object in conscience to participating in civil marriages, as recently redefined. Even religious orders—such as the Little Sisters of the Poor—are forced either to facilitate health coverage they find morally objectionable, or to face millions in federal fines, threatening their longstanding ministry to the frail elderly.
When people are threatened by violent extremists abroad, human dignity is denied, and we should speak out for these victims, pray for them, and offer them all the humanitarian aid at our disposal. But there is something else we can do for those persecuted abroad: we can offer them hope by keeping the torch of freedom brightly lit here at home. By our standing strong for religious freedom, we can both help maintain our nation's position as a model of religious freedom and diversity, and show our solidarity with those facing far graver threats.
We recently prepared ourselves for Pope Francis' visit through a Religious Freedom Summit that convened Sept. 18 at The Catholic University of America. We discussed the current crisis of religious freedom, both here and abroad, and outlined what we might do about it. In this way, we have been able to offer one of our great national treasures—our heritage of religious freedom—as a gift both to Pope Francis and to the whole world.
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Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. The views or positions presented in this or any guest editorial are those of the individual publication and do not necessarily represent the views of Catholic News Service or of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.