The day after the U.S. ambassador was murdered in Libya, along with fellow consulate workers, a conference on international religious liberty was held at the Catholic University of America.
“We come to this event with a sense of urgency,” Timothy Cardinal Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened the conference. “Yesterday’s events in Libya and Egypt point to what is at stake. We need to be respectful of other religious traditions at the same time that we unequivocally proclaim that violence in the name of religion is wrong.”
His was a moving call to Catholics, Christians, and all Americans to have a global perspective on the fundamental role of religious faith in society, to appreciate that the right to practice your faith — and not just within the walls of a house of worship — is one that Christians in Nigeria, who face the threat of death when they go to Sunday Mass, long for.
“Not only is it morally imperative, consonant with the urgent gospel demands of justice and charity, for us as Catholics to be prophetic leaders in defending our co-religionists around the world who are today being ‘thrown to the lions,’ but it is strategically necessary,” Cardinal Dolan said, “as our own laudable efforts to defend our ‘first and most cherished freedom’ here at home, are hollow and hypocritical if not coupled with a ringing solicitude for those under more overtly violent attack throughout the world.”
The conference was on the international, so that was his focus, but he did not hesitate to point out that “as you are well aware, there are serious challenges to religious freedom within our own nation, serious problems the Church faces in her life and mission in the United States — threats that could marginalize the Church and her educational, charitable and health-care institutions.”
There is a clear difference in gravity, of course.
“As grave as these challenges remain, they are of a different order than those faced by Christians and other people of faith in many countries. In the words of Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See, ‘Of course, nobody would confuse or equate this marginalization of religion with the actual persecution and killing of Christians in other areas of the world.’”
In all of our deliberations here we must remember that the absence of religious freedom in countries around the world leads to terrible human suffering. We hold in our hearts images of bloodied bodies lying lifeless amidst the rubble of bombed houses of worship, and the anguished faces of family members mourning their loss. We remember the anxious looks of refugees leaving behind homes and livelihoods as they flee religious discrimination or outright persecution. My hope is that we will together find ways to build societies respectful of the religious freedom of all persons and communities, a freedom at the foundation of all others, a freedom we Americans of all creeds, or none at all, rise to defend, at home and beyond.
The connection between the defense of the principle and practice at home to the suffering abroad drove the conference day, in a way, save, perhaps, for a brief, odd apologia for the Obama administration from his deputy national-security adviser, Denis McDonough. (It was particularly odd given the John Garvey, the president of Catholic and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the administration, sat in the audience as this loyal appointee insisted on President Obama’s commitment to religious freedom at home and abroad.)
In a closing address, Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, emphasized the unique leadership role of the United States:
Americans have a special relationship with the value of religious liberty; it is well embedded, not just in their past, but also in their present. Our twentieth century Civil Rights movement was prompted by religious communities and personalities who substantially contributed to erase racial inequality.
But the special relationship between the United States and religious liberty has not been fruitful just for Americans. It has been fruitful for everybody. The American sensitivity to religious freedom played a prominent role in shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. . . .Scholars and legislators there still draw inspiration from American Constitutionalism when they try to find new and positive ways of conceiving the relationship between religions and the State. . . . The United States still plays a global role in upholding religious freedom as, in many ways, does the Church in this country. . . .
The United States Bill of Rights embodies a principle that remains a test of genuine democracy: the free exercise of religion, that clearly implies freedom of conscience and of institutional expression of belief. The American Constitution then prohibits that the State adopt legislation to establish an official religion or that it prefer one religion over another. From this perspective, the State should not interfere with the free exercise of religious freedom, or with one’s practice of religion, nor should the State require a person to act against her or his religious views. Thus the presence of religious communities in the public sphere cannot be relegated to the celebrations of rites and ceremonies, but must be able to play an active role and to express their own vision of the human person and of the policies that rule society. . . .
]reedom of religion . . . is the human right that, in the end, guarantees all other human rights. The preservation of the American experience must remain a contribution for the peaceful and truly democratic future of our world. As Alexis de Tocqueville so wisely remarked, “Despotism may be able to do without faith but freedom cannot.” Thus, we stand for religious freedom so as to free others to become fully human.