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Sacred freedom
November 17th, 2010
By Rick DelVecchio

We’re on the eve of the 45th anniversary of “Dignitatis Humanae,” (On the Dignity of the Human Person), the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, enacted Dec. 7, 1965, by Pope Paul VI. It’s an apt moment to consider how treacherous Christian witness can be for many of the world’s faithful – those in religious minorities, those in countries where religious authority derives from the state, those where the state recognizes religious freedom but is too weak or too lax to protect it.

Consider the 58 Syriac Christians, including two priests, killed in the Our Lady of Salvation Church terrorist attack in Baghdad Oct. 31, and the 100 more slain in later sectarian violence in Iraq as the self-appointed Islamic State of Iraq threatened war on Christians throughout the region. Recall the seven Coptic Christians – and one Muslim security guard – murdered last Jan. 6 in drive-by shootings in Nagaa Hammadi as they emerged from Christmas Eve services at the southern Egyptian town’s main church. The attackers blamed a Christian for the rape of a 12-year-old girl the previous November and decided to slaughter innocents in revenge.

Such threats may seem far away, but are they really? Sectarian-confessional violence may be the bloodiest peril to religious freedom, but what of the Western intellectual fundamentalism of the militant atheists who threatened to arrest the pope for clergy abuse-related “crimes against humanity” on his recent apostolic journey to the United Kingdom? A stunt, perhaps, but stunts have a way of propagating unintended consequences. The atheists’ maneuver was different in execution, surely, from the worst of theological fundamentalism but possibly not so much in its judgmental hellfire. Here in the United States, worshipers aren’t murdered nor are religious leaders targeted. But our winner-take-all political environment leaves us open to a third, mundane kind of intolerance – the kind that demands to even the score for justice, trial or not, and to assume the worst of our opponents’ character.

On this page, we feature two examples of such attacks on the Catholic Church, one in Connecticut and one here in San Francisco. Our point isn’t to retell the battles but to share a reflection and an opinion on the deep roots of religious freedom and the need for vigilance even very close to home – even in our house.

The reflection is by Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop William Lori, whose flock fended off a 2009 state legislative attempt to change Church governance in order to give the laity control of non-ecclesial decisions and make the bishops advisory. The two legislators who proposed the bill said it originated with a group of Catholic parishioners in response to a priest’s embezzlement conviction; they denied it was an attack on freedom of religion and said it was their duty “to keep an open mind to what these parishioners say about their church.” But Bishop Lori felt there was more to it: the bill was “a thinly veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage.”

The opinion is from a federal appeals court ruling on a 2006 San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ resolution that vented politicians’ outrage over Church teaching on marriage and family – on adoption, in particular. The opinion was signed by a minority of three justices on a panel that weighed the constitutionality of the resolution; the majority felt the supervisors were within their constitutional rights to state their differences with the Church on an important social matter and that criticism of the faith itself was not their primary purpose. They voted to uphold a lower-court ruling to dismiss the case, which the plaintiffs hope the U.S. Supreme Court will take up and finally sort out the growing judicial confusion over the limits of government behavior toward religion. The full ruling in Catholic League vs. San Francisco can be downloaded from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit We excerpt just the highlight from the minority view, written by Judge Andrew Kleinfeld, that San Francisco crossed the constitutional line and that, historically, such moves have had consequences:

“Though it is hard to imagine that government condemnation of the Catholic Church would generate a pogrom against Catholics as it might at another time or for a religion with fewer and more defenseless adherents, the risk of serious consequences cannot be disregarded.

Vandals might be emboldened by knowledge that their government agrees that the Catholic Church is hateful and discriminatory. Parishioners might be concerned about driving their car to Mass for fear that it might be keyed in the parking lot. Zoning officials might be emboldened to deny variances and building permits on grounds they might not apply to other churches. Catholic city employees might fear for their promotions if they show too much religiosity, as by coming to work on Ash Wednesday with ash crosses on their foreheads. There are very good reasons why the Constitution directs government to stay out of religious matters.

“Our Founding Fathers were well aware of the strife in Europe during the Thirty Years War, and in England in the English Revolution, over religion. They put together a nation of Protestants of various disagreeing sects, Catholics, and Jews, by excluding government from religion. The exclusion was not anticlerical, and did not invite government hostility to any church. Our revolution, unlike the French, Mexican, or Russian revolutions, had no element of anti-clericalism. Our Bill of Rights established freedom of religion, not hostility to or establishment of any religion.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion ...

“Yet the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took upon itself authority to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox’ in Catholic doctrine. Government cannot constitutionally prescribe a religious orthodoxy and condemn heresy on homosexuality, or anything else. ...America allows both loyalty to faith and first-class citizenship.”

Religious freedom isn’t a one-way street, as the Vatican II Declaration notes: believers are bound to defend it with prudence and patience, never having recourse to means that are incompatible with the Gospel. Yet circumstance can never justify breaching the church-state wall. The Colorado Springs Gazette, a newspaper that supports the right to marry for all couples, editorialized Nov. 5 against San Francisco’s condemnation of the Church and in favor of protections for religious freedom whether or not the ideas and actors protected are popular. “Freedom of religion and association are protected by law – even for people whom government authorities despise,” the newspaper said in an unwitting echo of the Declaration in Rome 45 years ago.

“In order that relationships of peace and harmony be established and maintained within the whole of mankind,” the Declaration states, “it is necessary that religious freedom be everywhere provided with an effective constitutional guarantee and that respect be shown for the high duty and right of man freely to lead his religious life in society.”

From November 19, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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