Thursday, September 24, 2015
It seems to me that the Pope's underscoring of religious freedom (like his visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor!) was timely and important. And, in my view, it was both welcome and unsurprising -- unsurprising because Pope Francis is almost certainly well aware of the religious-freedom controversies that are on the front-burner in the United States and because he has often, in other contexts, reminded listeners of religious freedom's importance and vulnerability.
In one sense, the President and Pope were on the same page: President Obama noted in his introduction of the Pope, "here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty" and he expressed admiration for the good works that Catholic institutions do in society. The Pope, in turn, reminded the President that, today, Catholics and "countless other people" in America are "concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty." This statement, in context, seems to refer specifically to the concern that authorities will use broad understandings of antidiscrimination law to penalize or marginalize religious institutions that hire and fire in accord with their religious teachings.
The Pope's emphasis here is timely, I think, because tension and conflict between government regulations and the integrity and freedom of religious organizations and institutions continue to grow. Just recently, more than a hundred activist groups urged President Obama to disallow religious organizations that cooperate with the government in providing social-welfare services from selecting employees who share the organizations' faith commitments. The Obama Administration has, to its credit, allowed -- for now -- this hiring-for-mission, which is important to these organizations' freedom and effectiveness. The Pope's call to everyone "to preserve and defend everything that would threaten or compromise" what he called "one of America's most precious possessions," religious freedom, was an unmistakable defense of both the good works that religious organizations do and their freedom to act in accord with their distinctive religious character.