In a Philadelphia moment laden with symbolism, Pope Francis on Saturday encouraged all Americans and all religions to unite against efforts that would limit religious freedom.
“May this country and each of you be renewed in gratitude for the many blessings and freedoms that you enjoy. And may you defend these rights, especially your religious freedom, for it has been given to you by God himself,” the Pope said Sept. 26.
“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others,” he said.
The Pope reflected at length on religious freedom at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. The venue includes the National Constitution Center and the Liberty Bell Center. The Pope recognized the symbolism of speaking of religious freedom there.
“It was here that the freedoms which define this country were first proclaimed,” he said, citing the Declaration of Independence.
“Those ringing words continue to inspire us today, even as they have inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for the freedom to live in accordance with their dignity.”
He was greeted by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who reflected that the United States is “an experiment in freedom ordered by law and ordered to basic truths about the human person. The greatest goods in the American character come from our belief in a merciful God – a God who guarantees the dignity and rights of all his children.”
Archbishop Chaput spoke about Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers, who was himself an immigrant. The archbishop said Hamilton’s life shows that the United States is “a nation that no single ethnic group or privileged economic class ‘owns.’ It’s a country where a person who comes from nowhere can still make a difference … He reminds us that immigrants from around the world renew this country in every generation.”
Archbishop Chaput noted that “When the Church defends marriage and the family, the unborn child and the purpose of human sexuality, she’s attacked as too harsh. When she defends immigrant workers and families that are broken up by deportation, she’s attacked as too soft,” but that in fact “she is neither of those things,” but is rather a mother, “who understands and loves the whole human person; from conception to natural death; always, consistently and everywhere.”
“When it comes to immigration, the Church reminds us that in the end, all of us are children of the same loving God,” the archbishop stated. “That makes us brothers and sisters, despite the borders that separate us. And in arguing over borders to keep people out, we need to be vigilant against erecting those same borders in our hearts.”
Following Archbishop Chaput’s introduction, Pope Francis discussed the nature of religion and religious freedom.
“Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families,” Pope Francis said.
Religious traditions, he said, “call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness” and “remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power.”
The religious freedom meeting’s audience included representatives of the Hispanic community and other immigrants. An estimated 50,000 people are believed to have to attend.
He said religious freedom is “a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own.” He recalled the atrocities committed in the 20th century by regimes which dominated peoples and denied them “any kind of rights.”
Pope Francis also stressed the richness of religious traditions that offer meaning and direction and have “an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and heart.”
“They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights,” the Pope said.
Catholics in the United States have witnessed new threats to religious freedom in recent decades.
Catholic adoption agencies in some states have been forced to close down because laws or other government policies would require them to place children with same-sex couples. Catholic standards for school employees are also facing challenges.
The federal government has also required many religious employers to provide health insurance coverage for sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion. Those who refuse to do so face heavy fines.
Opponents of this mandate include the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns who care for the indigent poor. Their health care provider is also a Catholic organization. They have filed a legal challenge against the mandate, saying that helping to provide such drugs and procedures would violate their Catholic beliefs.
Pope Francis visited a Washington, D.C. house of the Little Sisters of the Poor on Sept. 23 to show support for their cause. The visit resulted in an iconic photo of the Pope shaking the hand of a 102-year-old nun.
In other parts of the world, especially the Middle East, Christians and other religious minorities have faced violence and even threats to their continued existence because of their religious beliefs.
Pope Francis stressed that religious freedom is a benefit to society as a whole.
“When individuals and communities are guaranteed the effective exercise of their rights, they are not only free to realize their potential, they also contribute to the welfare and enrichment of society,” he said.
The Pope warned against a cultural uniformity imposed by “the egotism of the powerful,” the “conformism of the weak,” or utopian ideology, quoting Fr. Michel de Certeau, a 20th century Jesuit from France.
“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
Citing his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, the Pope warned against the “globalization of the technocratic paradigm” which “aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity.”
In the face of such pressures, Pope Francis said that religions have the right and the duty to support a healthy pluralism that respects differences and is a “precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity.”
He cited the history of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, whose Quaker founders sought to create “a colony which would be a haven of religious freedom and tolerance.”
He thanked people of all religions who have “sought to serve the God of Peace” in building cities of brotherly love, caring for neighbors in need, defending the poor and the immigrant, and defending “the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages.”
“All too often, those most in need of our help are unable to be heard. You are their voice, and many of you have faithfully made their cry heard,” the Pope said. In this witness, which frequently encounters powerful resistance, you remind American democracy of the ideals for which it was founded, and that society is weakened whenever and wherever injustice prevails.”
Speaking of the cuff, Pope Francis then reflected on globalization, clarifying that it “is not bad – on the contrary, the tendency to globalize is good. What can be bad is the way of doing it.”
When globalization attempts to impose uniformity and “would destroy the richness, the particularity of every person and people,” it is bad. But when it “seeks to unite everyone, while respecting each person in his richness, particularities, this globalization is good, and makes all of us grow, and leads to peace.”
Returning to his prepared text, he greeted “with particular affection” American Hispanics in his audience and recent immigrants to the United States.
“Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life,” he said. “Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face.”
He encouraged them to never be ashamed of their traditions.
“Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land.”
He encouraged them to continue to cultivate the virtues of “vibrant faith” and their deep sense of family life.
“By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.”
The Pope also stressed the importance of memory for Americans.
“A people which remembers does not repeat past errors; instead, it looks with confidence to the challenges of the present and the future. Remembrance saves a people’s soul from whatever or whoever would attempt to dominate it or use it for their interests.”
He said United States history is a “constant effort” to embody the Declaration of Independence’s principles.
“We remember the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans,” he said.
“This shows that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed.”
?“Never forget what happened here two centuries ago,” he implored Americans. “Don’t lose the memory of that Declaration, which declared all men and women are created equal, endowed by their creator with rights which governments exist to protect and to defend.”
“Let us preserve liberty, let us take care of it: freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of every person, family, and nation, which causes other rights.”
Pope Francis concluded by leading the crowd in praying the Our Father.