October 1, 2015
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution laid down religious liberty as one of the foundation stones of our nation. In the ceremonies welcoming the Pope’s visit to the United States at the White House on Sept. 24, President Obama proudly pointed to the longstanding tradition of religious liberty in this country. He said, “Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty.” And he rightly affirmed that the very presence of Pope Francis was a reminder to us that “people are only truly free when they can practice their faith freely.”
On this historic visit of the pope’s visit to the United States, the president trumpeted his defense of religious liberty. Yet, his words seem so at variance with the facts. Even as he spoke, his Justice Department continued its relentless fight in “56 separate federal court cases aimed at forcing 140 religious ministries and institutions to cooperate with an Obamacare regulation that requires virtually all health care plans in the United States to cover contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs and devices” (Terence P. Jeffrey, “
Obama Touts Religious Liberty to Pope, While Litigating to Force 15 Dioceses to Cooperate in Abortion,” CNS, Sept. 23, 2015).
Pope Francis showed himself keenly aware of the discrepancy between the words about religious liberty and the
de facto reality of our present situation. The Holy Father drew the president’s attention to something that the president certainly knew. He reminded him that American Catholics are “concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and the right to religious liberty.” Making his point even clearer, he said in Philadelphia, that “religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a sub-culture, it’s a part of every people and nation” (Pope Francis,
Speech at Independence Hall, September 26, 2015).
Religious liberty cannot be limited to freedom of worship. It must include the freedom to put one’s faith into action in the public forum. In his remarks at the White House, the Pope gently made this point by voicing his support for the American bishops’ ongoing defense of religious liberty. He told the president, “As my brothers, the United States bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
In speaking with President Obama, the pope’s words were gentle, but pointed. Clear, but not condemning. They were a challenge to take seriously what religious liberty actually means. From the very beginning of Pope Francis’ visit, the fundamental right of religious liberty was in the forefront. Both the pope and the president addressed this pressing issue. Similar words. Very different understandings.
Like a gentle shepherd, Pope Francis calmly and clearly spoke the truth to the president as the world listened. But, then, just as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were wont to do, he clarified his teaching with a symbolic action. On the very same afternoon of his morning exchange with President Obama about religious liberty, the Holy Father made an impromptu visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor. The visit was highly significant.
The Little Sisters of the Poor are one of the largest communities of religious in the Catholic Church. From the streets of 19
th century France to the towns and cities of 31 countries today, these dedicated religious women have remained steadfast in their commitment to care for the poor. In the United States alone, they have 30 homes for the elderly. Unfortunately, their much-needed work of charity in our country is being threatened.
The Obamacare mandate is trying to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide abortion-inducing drugs to their employees. The sisters are refusing to comply. Sadly, on July 14, the Tenth Circuit ruled against the Little Sisters. The court even had the audacity to lecture the Little Sisters on their Catholic faith and tell them that they were wrong. Penalties for non-compliance will surely bankrupt them and close down their charitable works.
According to Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, Pope Francis’ visit to the Little Sisters was a “sign of support for” the nuns. They themselves understood it as such. And so should we. Religious liberty means that no government has the right to intrude itself into the belief system of its citizens and force them to act against their own moral convictions.
Throughout his visit among us, Pope Francis has spoken on the major issues facing our world. Religious liberty. The environment. Unjust economic systems. The family. Outreach for the poor and the marginalized. The evil of abortion. The marketing of human organs. Slave trade. Religious persecution. he sexual exploitation of children. The drug and weapons trade. International terrorism. Organized crime.
Pope Francis has become today’s voice for the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, the victims of war and exploitation, the persecuted and the unborn, unjustly denied the most basic right of life. With great patience and prudence, he avoids the strident tones of protests. Instead, he invites all to enter a culture of dialogue and so work for the common good of all humanity. America received him, like his predecessors, with enthusiasm and joy. May his courageous words as a prophet of justice and mercy shepherd us to greater peace.