Special Report

The Apostolic Nuncio Explains It All

Religious freedom, persecution, and martyrdom in the age of Obama.

By 12.4.12

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Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican's Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, is a well-traveled man, having served in Iraq, Kuwait, Great Britain, Strasbourg, Nigeria and, now, the United States.

As a churchman and a diplomat, the Archbishop is in a unique position to analyze threats to religious liberty and practice ("a fundamental and non-derogable right") under a variety of political regimes throughout the world. A month ago he offered his views on the subjects of religious freedom, persecution, and martyrdom at the University of Notre Dame conference, "Seed of the Church: Telling the Story of Today's Christian Martyrs."

Archbishop Viganò's remarks are timely in light of the current Administration's efforts to dragoon Catholic institutions into becoming funders of abortion, abortaficients, contraception, and sterilization in violation of Church law, tradition, and the consciences of the faithful.

The Archbishop is certainly mindful of more overt forms of religious persecution of Christians, up to and including even martyrdom, occurring in China, the subcontinent as well as Egypt, Nigeria, the Sudan and east Africa. He noted that "heavy hand of so called 'anti-blasphemy' laws has sometimes been the method to subjugate the Christian faith."

But the Nuncio's message in South Bend was geared to those who might not yet appreciate the threat to religious liberty in supposedly free countries including the United States.

"While it is necessary to remind ourselves of the obvious, we must also consider the not-so-obvious, for the great danger to the future of religious freedom lies with religious persecution that appears inconsequential or seems benign but in fact is not," opined the Nuncio. These vital issues must be attended to "for these grave concerns exist not only abroad, but they also exist within your own homeland."

Today, in western democracies, torture and death may not be a threat. 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," said the Archbishop. Such persons pursue various actions which promote difficulty, annoyance, and harassment "designed to frustrate the beliefs of the targeted person or persons rather than to eliminate these persons." 

The object is not "to destroy the believer but only the belief and its open manifestations," argued the Apostolic Nuncio. "From the public viewpoint, the believer remains but the faith eventually disappears."

He was making the same point made by many American defenders of the First Amendment, most notably, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things: The Establishment Clause, along with right reason and natural law, protects not just the freedom to worship, but also the free and robust exercise of religion in the public square as much as in the private sphere.

The Archbishop describes this latter right as "a complementary right about the unencumbered ability to exercise religious faith in a responsible and at the same time public manner."

Insisting on the freedom of the Church, libertas Ecclesiae, Archbishop Viganò maintained that "This freedom is essential to the religious freedom which properly belongs to the human person." This is "a human, civil, and natural right which is not conferred by the state because it subsists in the human person's nature." So there is "a pressing need to protect religious freedom around the world."

The "uncertainties surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," is just one of many reasons to be concerned. "When Catholic Charities and businesses owned by faithful Catholics experience pressure to alter their cherished beliefs, the problem is experienced in other venues," claimed the Nuncio. "Evidence is emerging which demonstrates that the threat to religious freedom is not solely a concern for non-democratic and totalitarian regimes." We are also seeing it in the "great democracies of the world… a tragedy for not only the believer but also for democratic society."

Religious freedom "is not an end in itself, because it has as its highest purpose protection of the ultimate dignity of the human person" -- a point made eloquently by the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, a leading light at the Second Vatican Council.

The Archbishop proceeds to cite a number of judicial decisions in England and the United States in which courts have obstructed believers' rights in making moral choices regarding marital and family arrangements that they find contrary to their religious and ethical beliefs: Evangelical Christians held unfit to be foster parents because they find "certain sexual expressions by consenting adults are sin"; parents prohibited from opting out of courses and texts that elevated same-sex marriages to a normative status; and, of course, the recent opinion of Judge Vaughan Walker on Proposition 8 in California in which he opined that religious beliefs opposing homosexual marriages cause "harm" to gays and lesbians.

Add to these examples the cases of Catholic Charities across the country being removed from vital social services because they "would not adopt policies or engage in procedures that violate fundamental moral principles of the Catholic faith."

The modern democratic state can emulate a totalitarian one in desiring much more than "passive obedience," often demanding full cooperation from the cradle to grave according to the English historian Christopher Dawson cited by the Apostolic Nuncio: Dawson thus warned that "if Christians cannot assert their right to exist" then "they will eventually be pushed not only out of modern culture, but out of physical existence." He acknowledged that this was not only a problem in the totalitarian and non-democratic states, but "it will also become the issue in England and America if we do not use our opportunities while we still have them."

Dawson, a convert to Catholicism, was writing in 1956 in an essay in Catholic World entitled, "The Challenge of Secularism." His words are not dissimilar to those of Blessed John Paul II, writing in his 1991 encyclical, Centissimus Annus, in which he reminded the faithful that "a democracy without values easily turns into openly and thinly disguised totalitarianism."

There is much in the Apostolic Nuncio's remarks at Notre Dame of a purely spiritual nature focused on Catholic listeners. However, this presentation contains much more that is of universal or catholic (lower case) interest. Adherents of all faiths should read it carefully. Religious fanaticism around the globe, untethered, again, from right reason, natural law, and tolerance of religious diversity, has given religious freedom a bad name. The Nuncio's speech in Indiana is most welcome as a reminder of what is at stake and why clear thinking on the rights and responsibilities of religious believers and those who govern them is so necessary in the present hour.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.