"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let me address the concerns that I see about this fundamental and non-derogable right, on your home front. When Catholic Charities and businesses owned by faithful Catholics experience pressure to alter theircherished 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 isnot 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.
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.
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.” 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.”
“…[W]e 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...
“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.”