November 4th, the Apostolic Nuncio for the USA, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò , addressed a conference on Religious Liberty at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
His remarks included this statement:
“As the papal nuncio to the United States, I realize that I speak from a distinguished podium at a great university. It is my intention to propose for your consideration the interrelated matters of religious freedom, persecution, and martyrdom that are, or should be, of vital concern to you – for these grave concerns exist not only abroad, but they also exist within your own homeland.”
The nuncio briefly sketched the persecution and martyrdom of Christians in other nations, then took care to define those terms.:
“In order to establish a framework for my presentation, several key definitions are in order. I will first address the subject of martyrdom. What is it, and why is it relevant to you today? I am sure that most if not all of us are familiar with the martyrs of the Church – both past and present – who gave of their lives because they would not compromise on the principles of faith that accompany the call to discipleship. Theirs is the experience of great suffering that often includes torture and death. Some of the early martyrs of the Church experienced this through cruelty, often by slow means, designed to bring on death. However, the intention underlying the objectives of the persecutor is important to understand: it was to eradicate the public witness to Jesus Christ and His Church. An accompanying objective can be the incapacitation of the faith by enticing people to renounce their beliefs, or at least their public manifestations, rather than undergo great hardships that will be, or can be, applied if believers persist in their resistance to apostasy. The plan is straightforward: if the faith persists, so will the hardships. In more recent times, martyrdom may not necessitate torture and death; however, the objective of those who desire to harm the faith may choose the path of ridiculing the believers so that they become outcasts from mainstream society and are marginalized from meaningful participation in public life. This brings me to the meaning of persecution.
Persecution is typically associated with the deeds preceding those necessary to make martyrs for the faith. While acts of persecution can mirror those associated with martyrdom, other elements can be directed to sustaining difficulty, annoyance, and harassment that are designed to frustrate the beliefs of the targeted person or persons rather than to eliminate these persons. It would seem, then, that the objective of persecution is to remove from the public square the beliefs themselves and the public manifestations without necessarily eliminating the persons who hold the beliefs. The victimization may not be designed to destroy the believer but only the belief and its open manifestations. From the public viewpoint, the believer remains but the faith eventually disappears.”
I am struck by the objective that the nuncio gave for those who persecute Christians, “eradicate the public witness to Jesus Christ and His Church. ” and, “enticing people to renounce their beliefs, or at least their public manifestations, rather than undergo great hardships that will be… ”
Next, he listed the maneuvers of a state to insure that enforcement of persecution is lawful:
“In the context of martyrdom and persecution, the law enforcement branches of the state can be relied upon to achieve the desired goal. The state’s enforcement mechanisms were surely employed in the campaigns that brought the deaths of the early Roman martyrs. The legal mechanisms of new legislation and its enforcement in Tudor England were relied upon in the persecution and martyrdom of Thomas More and John Fisher. As one thinks about these two heroic individuals, you can see the multiple objectives of the state. The first, in their sequential order, were words and then deeds designed to encourage through pressure More and Fisher to accept the King’s and Parliament’s wills to agree with the divorce of King Henry from Queen Catherine. However, when Fisher and More remained resolved in their fidelity to the Church’s teachings about the validity of the marriage but discreet in how they did so, the state mechanisms designed to bring them and their views around were ratcheted up so as to increase the pressure on them. When they resisted the increased pressure, statutes were enacted and amended to make non-compliance a treasonable and, therefore, a capital offense.”
It’s important to pause here and note that More and Fisher had committed no act against the king. They simply held to their beliefs. Their offense was fidelity to their faith. In order to appear to lawfully persecute St. Thomas More and St,. John Fisher, it was necessary for the state (king) to remove religious freedom.
Archbishop Vigano succinctly defined religious freedom:
“At the core of this fidelity is the desire to be a good citizen of the two cities where we all live: the City of Man and the City of God. This kind of dual citizenship necessitates libertas Ecclesiae, i.e., the freedom of the Church. This freedom is essential to the religious freedom which properly belongs to the human person. And this freedom that belongs to the human person is simultaneously a human, civil, and natural right which is not conferred by the state because it subsists in the human person’s nature.” (emphasis added)
A skillful diplomat, the nuncio, after thus preparing his audience, then introduces the looming danger for American Christians:
“We live in an age where most, but not all, of your fellow countrymen still share in the conviction that Americans 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 as I have just indicated, 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 United States 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. “
There we have his clear warning to Americans–”high public office” in the Unites States fails to acknowledge the exercise of religious faith in a public manner. The subtext is one our bishops have also warned about–do not mistake “freedom of worship” (confined to a church–essentially a private exercise of faith) to religious freedom ( public witness and freedom of worship).
Next, “Let me address the concerns that I see about this fundamental and non-derogable right, on your home front. “
Gently but explicitly Archbishop Vigano explained that even democratic nations–including the United States –are at risk. Specific to our current situation, where Catholics and others are under extreme penalty due to the HHS mandate ( part of Obamacare) the Nuncio warned:
“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. Unfortunately it is surfacing with greater regularity in what many consider the great democracies of the world. This is a tragedy for not only the believer but also for democratic society. “
Furthermore, alarming assaults on religious freedom have recently occurred in other democracies. The Archbishop noted a 2010 case in England:
“The 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…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.”
Americans, let us mark well the fate of the Johns. Their religious faith is the problem, not the good and loving care that this couple gave to special needs children. Presumably, less loving care is more tolerable when administered by persons devoid of “capricious” religious belief. The Johns refused to teach or allow their foster children to be taught that homosexual act are a “right.”
The Archbishop continues with a pointed observation:
“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 from distancing children from their parents and monopolizing the control of educational processes especially on moral issues.”
Moving his illustrations back to our own shores, Archbishop Vigano related the following cases:
“But we must not forget the other perils to religious liberty that your great country has experienced in recent years. Once again, we see that the rule of law, in the context of your 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 your 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….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.
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 your Constitution: “Religious beliefs that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful or inferior to heterosexual relationships harm gays and lesbians.”5 This “harm” cited by the judge became the basis for devising a mechanism used to minimize if not eradicate the free exercise of religion which includes the vigorous participation of the religious believer in public and political life.”
As he began his closing statements, the papal nuncio, brought the subject home, to the heart of his Notre Dame audience when he forcefully decried so-called “Catholic” university professors whose alliance with modern liberalism against the Church was “grave,”
“…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, my brothers and sisters, is a grave and major problem that challenges the first freedom of religious liberty and the higher purpose of the human person.”
Further into his presentation the Archbishop recalled the admonition of the historian Christopher Dawson writing in the 1950s, “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…it will also become the issue in England and America if we do not use our opportunities while we still have them.”
The nuncio’s crescendo was surely intended to grasp even the lukewarm by the throat:
“Catholics have, in the past, experienced and weathered the storms that have threatened religious freedom. In this context, we recall that Pope Pius XI took steps to address these grave problems in his 1931 encyclical letter Non Abbiamo Bisogno dealing with religious persecution of the faithful by the fascists in Italy, and in his 1937 letter Mit Brennender Sorge addressing parallel threats initiated by the National Socialists in Germany. In the context of Germany during the reign of National Socialism, we recall that the Oxford Professor Nathanial Micklem examined and discussed the persecution of the Catholic Church is Germany in his 1939 book entitled National Socialism and the Roman Catholic Church. The problems identified by Micklem over six decades ago that deal with the heavy grip of the state’s hand in authentic religious liberty are still with us today.”
I want to note here that the Nuncio is not the first to recently warm Americans of Nazi Germany’s assault on the Church in the 1930s. Several of our bishops have done the same, including most eloquently, Archbishop Charles Chaput.
If we Catholic faithful fail to respond to the present moment–a “clear and present danger” –our children will write a scathing history of our time. An examination of conscience in the conditions we now live in should include: Have I omitted to defend my faith in public? Have I contributed to the public understanding of religious freedom? What have I done to convert this culture, to be a witness for Jesus Christ in a world that grows dark?
The way ahead is clear–we either convert the culture or be persecuted by it. Can it be possible that after a papal nuncio and several of our own bishops have repeatedly warned us that our current situation is not unlike Nazi Germany, that we remain inactive? Lukewarm?
Beware, dear faithful, more than democratic freedoms are at stake. Though it is true that, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16), the Book Revelation 3:16 is stark ” But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, not hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.”
“A democracy without values easily turns into openly or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” John Paul II
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion and culture appear in a variety of publications. She is a frequent guest on the Women of Grace® television program. Mary Jo was appointed in 2010 to serve on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops National Advisory Council. Mrs. Anderson is co-author with Robin Bernhoft of Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions, published in 2005 by Catholic Answers. Mary Jo blogs at www.maryjoanderson.net.