PHILADELPHIA — From meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor to quoting the Declaration of Independence, Pope Francis underscored the importance of religious liberty frequently during his six-day visit to the United States.
“What amazed me was how often he mentioned it, how often it was woven into his talks. I think that is very significant,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told the Register following the Pope’s Sept. 26 address at a religious-freedom rally outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Archbishop Lori, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, also said he was grateful that Pope Francis, especially in his Sept. 23 remarks at the White House, supported the bishops’ efforts to defend the religious freedom of Catholic institutions to serve the common good while being true to their Catholic identity.
“He said we should not be forced to give up or compromise our beliefs,” Archbishop Lori said. “It was an excellent talk, and I felt very happy about it.”
Pope Francis brought up religious freedom on his first full day in the United States. Speaking at his arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn, the Pope told President Barack Obama that American Catholics are “concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and the right to religious liberty.”
Freedom of religion, Pope Francis told the president, “remains one of America’s most precious possessions.” The Pope then noted that the nation’s bishops have “reminded us all are called to be vigilant, as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
Pope Francis did not stop there. After his White House remarks, the Holy Father made an unscheduled stop to the Little Sisters of the Poor community in Washington. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the head of the Holy See Press Office, said the Pope’s visit was a “sign of support” for the Little Sisters in their court case against the federal government’s contraceptive mandate.
“I see that as a masterful gesture on the part of the Pope to express his support of [the Little Sisters], their courageous defense of religious liberty and their desire to use their religious liberty well, to use it to worship God and to also serve those in need,” Archbishop Lori said.
“The Pope spoke loud and clear. That visit to the Little Sisters was a pretty big editorial statement all by itself,” said Robert Destro, a law professor and founding director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion at The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law.
Pope Francis continued the religious-freedom theme during his historic Sept. 24 address to the joint session of Congress. Speaking in English to a packed House chamber, the Pope discussed the need to combat violence perpetuated in the name of religion, “while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.”
The next day, Pope Francis appeared at the United Nations in New York City, where he noted that Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East “have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property.”
Pope Francis told the U.N. General Assembly that government leaders “must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family.” The Pope said that includes lodging, labor, land and spiritual freedom, “which includes religious freedom.”
On Sept. 26, Pope Francis described religious freedom as “a fundamental right” in an address to thousands gathered outside of Independence Hall, the location where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated and adopted.
Speaking at a lectern used by President Abraham Lincoln during his 1863 Gettysburg Address, Pope Francis said religious freedom shapes how people interact socially and personally with their neighbors, especially those whose religious views differ from their own.
“Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God,” Pope Francis said, “individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.”
The Pope’s remarks can be seen as a rebuttal to secularizing forces that seek to push religiously informed views out of the public square, said Deal Hudson, editor and publisher of The Christian Review.
“The Pontiff’s insistence on religious liberty going beyond houses of worship and private piety is a direct challenge to the leftist arguments that limit that liberty to worship,” Hudson told the Register.
Said Hudson, “Pope Francis is obviously aware of the public arguments that are brewing in this arena.”
Destro also said the Pope’s remarks in Philadelphia are a direct challenge to the idea that citizens must keep their religious opinions and practices to themselves when getting involved in public affairs.
“His visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor in D.C. spoke volumes,” Destro said. “In case the message was not received, he repeated it, more broadly this time, in Philly.”
Defending Everyone’s Religious Expression
Pope Francis’ address in Philadelphia also reflected the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on religious liberty in Dignitatis Humanae, which included an emphasis on safeguarding the plurality of religion expression.
That Pope Francis’ remarks were delivered in the United States was also fitting, in that American Church leaders, perhaps most notably Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, advanced the cause of religious freedom at the Council, with the understanding that governments should safeguard the liberties of all religious communities.
“We’re not looking to defend just our own liberty. We’re also looking to defend the liberty and just rights of everyone,” said Archbishop Lori, who added that Pope Francis demonstrated “a beautiful way” to communicate the importance and centrality of religious freedom.
Summed up Archbishop Lori, “He’s opened the door for us to do this with renewed energy and with a fresh emphasis on religious liberty. I think the Holy Father did us a tremendous favor.”