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Religious Freedom: Theology on Tap; World Youth Day Event

I. Introduction: Witnesses to Freedom

A. First, let me thank you for being here tonight. With all the World Youth Day events going on all around Krakow, there are many other places you could have been tonight, but instead, you chose to come to a bar for adult beverages! Oh, and by the way, to spend a few moments think about religious freedom. I’m getting the impression that I’m a little over-dressed for this occasion!

B. As Catheryn told you I serve I serve as the U.S. bishops’ point person on religious freedom matters in the United States. And I’m grateful to be involved in this work first, because religious freedom is such a beautiful gift from God and second because I get to meet and know so many courageous people. So just this morning, as I was wandering around the Mercy Centre Arena, I met a young lady preparing to give a talk. She is a Chaldean Christian and she is here with 300 young people from Iraq. Here cousin is Archbishop Warda, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq. These young pilgrims know better than I what religious freedom is all about. Many of their relatives were killed by ISIS simply because they are Christian. Many were driven from their homes and sent into exile. Some of the young women in their families have been enslaved. In Iraq, Iran, Syria and other places in the Middle East and Africa, people are enduring not merely violations of their religious freedom, and not merely religious persecution – but genocide – they are being eradicated. These young people from Iraq are here as witnesses to freedom. Now that terror is spreading to the West as we remember the priest who died today in France at the hands of ISIS together with many other victims of terror in these recent days. We owe it to God to stand in solidarity with them!

C. All around us here in Krakow are witnesses to religious freedom. Today at the Mercy Centre we venerated the relics of courageous saints: Pope St. John Paul II, St. Maximillian Kolbe, St. Jerzy Popieluszko, St. Faustina. Each of them teaches us about the importance of religious freedom. As a young bishop, St. John Paul II helped to shape the Declaration on Religious Freedom of the II Vatican Council and it was his leadership that brought true religious freedom to Poland. Yesterday I offered Mass in a place called “Nowa Huta” – a town the communist authorities founded as a town without God, without a church, and without family life. On May 15, 1977, Cardinal Wojtyla dedicated an imposing church on that site and then returned two years later as Pope John Paul II to his native Poland – the communist authorities knew then that there number was up! But not without the shedding of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko’s blood, a mild-manner but courageous parish priest who preached religious freedom the pulpit of his parish church so convincingly that it cost him his life on October 19, 1984 – this young priest is a witness to freedom! St. Maximillian Kolbe was a Conventual Franciscan, a missionary to Japan, and a pioneer in the church’s efforts to communicate the Gospel thru the media. He ran afoul of the Nazi regime during World War II and was sent to Auschwitz. With priestly love he took the place of another man who was about to be executed because that man had a wife and a family. He is a witness to the interior freedom of the saints. No authority, not even the most brutal, can rob them of their freedom to remain faithful to Christ and to live their faith to the very end. St. Faustina was a religious sister here in Krakow a woman of deep and even mystical prayer to whom the Lord Jesus appeared, entrusting to her the message of mercy, even as the violence of World War II with its atrocities was unfolding. As we venerate their relics we should grow in our appreciation of God’s precious gift of religious freedom as one of our most fundamental rights. Let us learn from those who prayed for freedom and mercy, those who suffered and died, and those who continue to suffer and die.

II. Religious Freedom in the West

A. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going in the West, more specifically in the U.S. Twenty years ago, when I became a bishop, there were already challenges to religious freedom in the U.S. but most people seemed were really committed to it. When the Supreme Court handed down a decision in 1990 that weakened constitutional protection for religious freedom, the Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by wide margins (RFRA), and it was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives seemed to agree that religious freedom was a basic freedom that needed to be protected.

D. As time went on, that consensus began to fall apart… When I served as a bishop in Connecticut, for example, I met with elected officials. Many of them were dedicated and fair-minded public servants. But I also sensed a growing hostility toward the Church, in part because of the Church’s internal problems and in part because more people in society were thought to disagree with the Church’s teachings on issues such as marriage, sexuality, and medical ethics. It all came to a head when a bill was proposed in the Connecticut legislature that would have forced the Catholic church to reorganize itself – effectively removing the bishop and the pastor from overseeing Catholic parishes. Catholics from all over Connecticut were pretty upset and the bill was withdrawn but I have to tell you it was really a wake-up call for me. I used to think that religious persecution and violations of religious freedom were things that happened elsewhere in the world but not in the U.S. But now I realized these things could also happen in my country. Long story short, I wrote a public letter on religious freedom; come to find out many other bishops were becoming concerned about the issue and next thing I know I was asked to form a committee of the bishops to deal with religious freedom issues in the U.S. and that’s probably why I’m standing here before you this evening. Let me tell you this isn’t a fight that we bishops wanted to have. We’d rather celebrate religious freedom as a wonderful gift from God and we’d rather just concentrate on using this gift to worship God freely and to serve the poor and the needy according to our faith. But sometimes in life you don’t get to choose your battles. This is one of those times.

III. The Current Situation on Religious Freedom

A. But when we think about what Christians and other religious minorities are facing not only in the Middle East but also in many other parts of the world, we may be tempted to think that the religious freedom challenges at home are nothing to worry about. So what that the government wants to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to cover contraception and abortion-inducing drugs in their healthcare plan. So what that Catholic hospitals in California may be forced to perform abortion or that churches may lose their tax exempt status if they refuse to go along with the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage. What if Catholic adoption agencies are put out of business because they place children in traditional homes with a mom and a dad? Or that many people in public life accuse Christians as bigots not because they are against anyone but because they are for marriage between a man and a woman – it is said that religious freedom is a license to discriminate. Or the accreditation of Catholic colleges and universities is threatened if those institutions adhere too closely to the Church’s teachings? Some people say – sure we understand why you’re not happy about these things but it’s time for the Church to get in step with the culture and besides, the whatever problems the Church is having in the U.S. pale in comparison to the genocide fellow Christians are suffering elsewhere.

B. I’d urge us not to let that happen. Places like Iraq and Syria and the former communist bloc help us see what a society without religious freedom is like – it is hard, unmerciful place, where nothing and no one stands between the power of the state and the conscience of the individual. Whether it’s communism, ISIS, or a radically secularized state that takes away our religious freedom – in any case, our human dignity is wounded. When it comes to religious freedom, East, West, North, & South must stand together. For, as the Church teaches, religious freedom is not given us by the State but rather it is God’s gift, inscribed in our human nature. It’s not just freedom of choice but rather a gift that prompts us to search for God and to fulfill our destiny to be the friends of God – this is what brings us joy.

IV. What Can We Do?

A. So, what can we do to protect and foster this precious gift? First, we need to make religious freedom the subject of our prayers. We need to thank God for the gift of religious freedom and ask for the wisdom and love to be able to defend it well. Second, in this year of mercy, we are reminded that we should forgive those who persecute us for our faith, whether that persecution is violent or “polite” as we experience in the West. Third, we need to use our freedom well – we need to use our freedom, like the saints did, to bear witness to Christ to offer the faith to those who have left the Church and or searching for God, and to serve the poor and need with generosity and love. If more people loved God more and practiced their faith more – threats to religious freedom, in the West at least, may well subside.

Fourth, we need to remind ourselves that the struggle for religious freedom is not about the so-called culture wars and it’s not about partisan politics -- no, it’s about defending our common humanity and the common good; it’s about forming a society that is just, peaceful, and respectful of human life. We need to learn how to speak about religious freedom convincingly! Finally, we need to do our duty as citizens, that is, to make it clear to elected officials that we expect them not to trade in our fundamental freedoms for passing fads. The opinions of society change over time but our fundamental freedoms do not change – they are a part of who we are.

B. Let me thank you for coming here this evening. And thanks for listening – I’ll be glad to take your questions.