(CNSNews.com) - Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia gave a speech to seminarians in his archdiocese on March 17 in which he examined the threats to religious liberty arising around the world—including in the United States.
In his speech, the archbishop said: “The current White House may be the least friendly to religious concerns in our history.”
He also said: “We need to remember two simple facts. In practice, no law and no constitution can protect religious freedom unless people actually believe and live their faith – not just at home or in church, but in their public lives. But it’s also true that no one can finally take our freedom unless we give it away.”
Archbishop Chaput’s speech can be read in its entirety on the website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is a segment of the speech in which he talks about the United States:
And what about the United States? Compared to almost anywhere else in the world, our religious freedom situation is good. Religious believers played a very big role in founding and building the country. Until recently, our laws have reflected that. In many ways they still do. A large majority of Americans still believe in God and still identify as Christian. Religious practice remains high. But that’s changing. And the pace will quicken.
More young people are disaffiliated from religion now than at any time in our country’s past. More stay away as they age. And many have no sense of the role that religious freedom has played in our nation’s life and culture.
The current White House may be the least friendly to religious concerns in our history. But we’ll see more of the same in the future--pressure in favor of things like gay rights, contraception and abortion services, and against public religious witness.
We’ll see it in the courts and in so-called “anti-discrimination” laws. We’ll see it in “anti-bullying” policies that turn public schools into indoctrination centers on matters of human sexuality; centers that teach that there’s no permanent truth involved in words like “male” and “female.” And we’ll see it in restrictions on public funding, revocation of tax exemptions and expanding government regulations. We too easily forget that every good service the government provides comes with a growth in its regulatory power. And that power can be used in ways nobody imagined in the past.
We also forget Tocqueville’s warning that democracy can become tyrannical precisely because it’s so sensitive to public opinion. If anyone needs proof, consider what a phrase like “marriage equality” has done to our public discourse in less than a decade. It’s dishonest. But it works.
That leads to the key point I want to make here. The biggest problem we face as a culture isn’t gay marriage or global warming. It’s not abortion funding or the federal debt. These are vital issues, clearly. But the deeper problem, the one that’s crippling us, is that we use words like justice, rights, freedom and dignity without any commonly shared meaning to their content.
We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power. Words like “justice” have emotional throw-weight, so people use them as weapons. And it can’t be otherwise, because the religious vision and convictions that once animated American life are no longer welcome at the table. After all, what can “human rights” mean if science sees nothing transcendent in the human species? Or if science imagines a trans-humanist future? Or if science doubts that a uniquely human “nature” even exists? If there’s no inherent human nature, there can be no inherent natural rights--and then the grounding of our whole political system is a group of empty syllables.
Liberal democracy doesn’t have the resources to sustain its own purpose. Democracy depends for its meaning on the existence of some higher authority outside itself. The Western idea of natural rights comes not just from the philosophers of the Enlightenment, but even earlier from the medieval Church. Our Western legal tradition has its origins not in the Enlightenment, but in the 11th and 12th century papal revolution in canon law. The Enlightenment itself could never have happened outside the Christian world from which it emerged. In the words of Oxford scholar Larry Siedentop--and in contrast to ancient pagan society--“Christianity changed the ground of human identity” by developing and uniquely stressing the idea of the individual person with an eternal destiny. In doing that, “Christian moral beliefs emerge as the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.” Modern pluralist democracy has plenty of room for every religious faith and no religious faith.
But we’re lying to ourselves if we think we can keep our freedoms without revering the biblical vision--the uniquely Jewish and Christian vision--of who and what man is. Human dignity has only one source. And only one guarantee. We’re made in the image and likeness of God. And if there is no God, then human dignity is just elegant words.
Earlier I said we need to leave here tonight with a spirit of hope. So let’s turn to that now in these last few minutes before we have questions and discussion.
We need to remember two simple facts. In practice, no law and no constitution can protect religious freedom unless people actually believe and live their faith – not just at home or in church, but in their public lives. But it’s also true that no one can finally take our freedom unless we give it away.
Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6) He also said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). The Gospel of Jesus Christ is for people who want to be free, “free” in the truest sense. And its message is meant for all of us; for all men and women--unless we choose to be afraid.
Looking back over the past 50 years, and even at our lives today, I think it’s too easy to see the problems in the world. It’s too easy to become a cynic. There’s too much beauty in the world to lose hope; too many people searching for something more than themselves; too many people who comfort the suffering; too many people who serve the poor; too many people who seek and teach the truth; too much history that witnesses, again and again, to the mercy of God, incarnate in the course of human affairs.
In the end, there’s too much evidence that God loves us, with a passion that is totally unreasonable and completely redemptive, to ever stop trusting in God’s purpose for the world, and for our lives.
The Second Vatican Council began and ended in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the worst war in human history. If there’s an argument to be made against the worthiness of humanity, we’ve made that argument ourselves, again and again down the centuries, but especially in the modern age. Yet every one of the Council documents is alive with confidence in God and in the dignity of man. And there’s a reason. God makes greatness, not failures. He makes free men and women, not cowards. The early Church father Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” I believe that’s true. And I’d add that the glory of men and women is their ability, with God’s grace, to love as God loves.
And when that miracle happens, even in just one of us, the world begins to change.