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Between Pope and President, a Disconnect on Religious Freedom


Pope Francis, in his first message on U.S. soil, introduced several subjects during his speech at the White House welcome ceremony:

  • Immigration reform,
  • “Support [for the] institutions of marriage and the family at a critical moment in the history of our civilization,”
  • “Fidelity to the nation’s founding principles,” including the defense of religious liberty “from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
  • “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.”

We can depend on the media to keep immigration reform and climate change front and center. Indeed, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both posted headlines that narrowed the pope’s remarks this morning as an endorsement of climate change efforts.

What remains to be seen is whether the pope will effectively advance public understanding of Catholic teaching on marriage and religious freedom. Indeed, greater appreciation for the “first freedom” will create more space in the public square for Catholic institutions and pastors to present their distinctive vision of married love.

At present, Obama is fully invested in the advancement of LGBT rights,  including marriage equality, and has shown no interest in approving robust exemptions for those who disagree with a seismic shift in U.S. culture and law.  Echoing the concerns of many religious believers and supporters of free-exercise rights, New York Times columnist David Brooks has warned that “if there is no attempt to balance religious liberty and civil rights, the cause of gay rights will be associated with coercion, not liberation.”

Today, the pope’s repudiation of “unjust discrimination” gently challenged the attempt to falsely present religious freedom protections as a shield for bigots.

The pope’s statements followed President Obama’s welcome address, which celebrated the vital legacy of the Church in the nation:

“[A]s president, I’ve seen firsthand how, every day, Catholic communities, priests, nuns and laity feed the hungry, heal the sick, shelter the homeless, educate our children and fortify the faith that sustains so many.”

But Catholic social agencies that have lost federal government contracts because they won’t provide referrals for abortion or contraception will find these words surprising.

Likewise, Obama’s applause for the pope’s record on religious liberty will raise eyebrows. The president told Francis:

“You remind us that people are only truly free when they can practice their faith freely. Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty. Yet around the world at this very moment, children of God, including Christians, are targeted and even killed because of their faith.”

This is the president who has sought to reduce religious liberty to f”reedom to worship” — rather than the more comprehensive “freedom to practice”, and his insistance on a narrow religious exemption for the HHS contraception mandate, will likely lead some Catholics to dismiss remarks today as lacking any credibility.

But Francis may find a way to secure an overdue victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor and other HHS plaintiffs.

More importantly, as Francis calls for nations and churches across the world to shelter refugees fleeing persecution in the Middle East, this will be the time for the pope to directly advocate for the U.S. Government to welcome Christians refugees.

In 2015, Washington has accepted a paltry 1,500 Syrian refugees, despite the tragedy unfolding in Europe. This month, the White House promised to accept more, though no details have been offered.
But Syrian Christians face an additional hurdle, as they are not sponsored by the United Nations refugee program, which serves as the pipeline for people that receive approval to come to this country.

This week, Nina Shea, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, called for the administration to change its policy before it is too late.

“The Obama administration has offered no assurance that it will look outside the U.N. system to ensure that any Christians and Yazidis who fled ISIS will be included under the U.S. quota program,” said Shea in a post on National Review.

“Whether out of indifference or by intent, the administration is abandoning the members of these religious minorities. In so doing, it is impeding their chances of survival, along with dooming the imperative of ‘never again.’”

Deeds, not words are key.


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