Francis at Independence Hall

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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I admit that I was deeply worried about how this afternoon’s event at Independence Hall would turn out. The U.S. bishops have mounted a religious liberty campaign that was rooted in a fundamental problem, being tied to an excessive, at times almost paranoid, understanding of what constitutes illicit material cooperation with evil. Additionally, their campaign was so poorly framed and conducted, that they allowed one of America’s great political achievements, a source of common, shared American pride, and allowed it to become a partisan issue. This was not entirely the bishops’ fault, to be sure, but they deserve no plaudits for the way they have handled the issue these past few years. Would the Holy Father understand any of this? I wondered. My worries were misplaced.

I was delighted to hear the pope begin by calling attention to what constitutes a healthy society and how the struggle to live up to great principles is never easy. He said:

But history also shows that these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.  The history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life.  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.  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.

I am deeply disappointed in today’s Democratic Party for its narrow understanding of religious liberty, but I would note that the opposite party is busy repealing the extension of voting right, fighting the growth of the labor movement, and as we have seen in the past two months of the Trump and Carson carnival, far too comfortable with racism and prejudice. Something it out of whack in both parties, a lack of moral consistency, that has been obvious for some time. I was delighted that the Holy Father, unlike too many bishops, was willing to speak to both sides of the ledger.

When the pope mentioned religious liberty at the White House, he did so after affirming the Church’s commitment to an inclusive society that repudiates any and all unjust discrimination. Today, in Philadelphia, he examined religious liberty in the context of American pluralism and the need for all societies to recognize the transcendent dignity of the human person. Indeed, departing from his prepared remarks, the Holy Father linked religious liberty to the need for inter-religious dialogue, showing that he understands the right to religious liberty not in the negative conception of rights which interested the founding fathers, but in the positive conception of freedom which animates the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty. Returning to his text, the Holy Father said:

Our religious traditions remind us that, as human beings, we are called to acknowledge an Other, who reveals our relational identity in the face of every effort to impose “a uniformity to which the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us” (M. de Certeau).  

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.

We live in a world subject to the “globalization of the technocratic paradigm” (Laudato Si’, 106), which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity.  The religions thus have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where “a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such” (Evangelii Gaudium, 255) is a “precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity… and a path to peace in our troubled world” (ibid., 257).

Francis included improvised comments about globalization, using geometry to explain the difference between bad and good globalization and, I admit, he lost me with the geometry. And, while his words were universal in their application, I had anticipated that he would speak specifically about the lack of religious freedom in the Middle East and the plight of Christian populations in that region, but he did not speak to that issue today.

The Holy Father then turned to the immigrant community, whose presence was added to the event, I am not sure why. Here, again, he hit the right mark, saying words that needed to be said after months of listening to various GOP presidential candidates speak about immigrants in the most de-humanizing ways. The pope called on immigrants to never forget their heritage:

Among us today are members of America’s large Hispanic population, as well as representatives of recent immigrants to the United States.  I greet all of you with particular affection!  Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life.  Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face.  I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation.  You should never be ashamed of your 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.  I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood.  You are also called to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live.  I think in particular of the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited.  By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.

How refreshing to hear someone remind all Americans that immigrants bring gifts whether or not they bring proper documents. Their contributions enrich the nation, whether or not their English is perfect. And, his attention to the vital faith and commitment to family life that Latinos bring with them is a clarion call to the leadership of the U.S. Church to recognize how much we gringos need the gifts the Hispanics bring, to care for those gifts and allow them to take root, lest the perish for want of water or light or good soil.



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