Spirituality for Today – May 2011 – Volume 15, Issue 10

Blessed John Paul II: Champion of Religious Freedom

By The Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Bishop Of Bridgeport

On the threshold of a new millennium, we are witnessing an extraordinary global acceleration of that quest for freedom which is one of the great dynamics of human history. This phenomenon is not limited to any one part of the world; nor is it the expression of any single culture. Men and women throughout the world, even when threatened by violence, have taken the risk of freedom, asking to be given a place in social, political, and economic life which is commensurate with their dignity as free human beings. This universal longing for freedom is truly one of the distinguishing marks of our time" (Address to the United Nations, 1995).

A photo of Pope John Paul II

Thus spoke Pope John Paul II before the 15th General Assembly of the United Nations on October 5, 1995. In these days when the peoples of the Middle East are risking their lives for freedom, and in these days when we must be vigilant for our own hard-won freedoms, the words of this great Pontiff resonate in our minds and hearts, and even more so, as we gather to pay him tribute on the eve of his beatification by Pope Benedict XVI. In his lived experience, his philosophical reflection, his role as teacher of the faith; in his presence on the world stage, and above all, in his life of mystical prayer— John Paul II achieved a unique and profound synthesis of the dignity of the human person and those freedoms inherent in our humanity. And he made it clear that the first of those freedoms is religious freedom. Writing to the Secretary General of the United Nations in 1978, the newly elected Pope [he] asserted: "...religious freedom…is the basis of all other freedoms and is inseparably tied to them all by reason of that very dignity which is the human person" (Letter to Kurt Waldheim, December 2, 1978). This was a theme he would repeat and develop throughout his long and fruitful Pontificate.

John Paul II's witness to human freedom & dignity strikes a deep chord in our nation where religious freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution, and where we, as a people, have always believed that God, and not the State, is the source of those rights. We have not always lived up to the truths and ideals in our founding documents but this belief has helped insulate us from the kinds of human rights abuses that marked the French Revolution or totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

Lived Experience

In his extraordinary life, Pope John Paul II experienced the full range of threats to human dignity and religious freedom: the totalitarianisms of the right and the left which oppressed his native Poland, first the Nazi occupation and then the Communist puppet state. So too he grappled with what his Successor would call "the dictatorship of relativism", a dictatorship "that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires." (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Homily, Mass for the Election of a Pope," April 18, 2005).

We are inspired by the story of a young Karol Wojtyla working in the Solvay limestone quarry during the terrible days of World War II. Amid back-breaking labor and the menacing ideology of Nazism, we meet one of the greatest philosophical and religious spirits of the 20th century, taking risks for freedom by probing the mystery of man through theater and poetry while forging life-long bonds of solidarity and friendship in the process. These initial risks for freedom would be but the dress rehearsal for what lay ahead.

Soon, one form of tyranny gave way to another as the Red Army invaded Poland. By brutality and espionage, the ideology of an all-encompassing godless state sought to repress the human spirit and its inherent freedoms. Even as Communism tightened its grip on Poland, a young Karol Wojtyla heard and responded to the call of a priestly vocation. Risking both life and freedom to answer a vocation to the priesthood, he entered the underground seminary at the residence of "the unbroken prince", Archbishop Sapieha of Krakow,and on November 1, 1946, he was ordained to the priesthood. On November 2nd, he celebrated his first Mass in the Wawel Cathedral Crypt, the first of many Masses from which he would derive the strength and courage needed for the amazing role Providence had marked out for him.

In his recent book, The End and the Beginning, George Weigel demonstrates the lengths to which the Communist government went to spy on bishops and priests in Poland, including Father Wojtyla. Weigel documents attempts by that government to weaken and even "disintegrate" the Church at its highest levels. At first, the authorities thought Father Wojtyla too much a philosopher to be a threat but after his ordination as Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow in 1958, it dawned on them what a truly formidable leader he was. Those ideologically-driven authorities were to learn from this bishop what they already they should have known: 'ideas have consequences'. (Cf. Richard H. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948) Or better, the truth – the truth about God and the truth about man, revealed most fully in the Incarnate Son of God (see Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 22) is more than consequential: it is the pivot upon which history turns.

This is what the Church, gathered for the Second Vatican Council, witnessed in the finely crafted interventions of a young Polish bishop concerned with human dignity and freedom, and the relationship of the Church and the modern world. This is also what the Communist authorities witnessed to their chagrin as a still young Cardinal Archbishop broke down their arbitrary restrictions on the annual Corpus Christi procession in Krakow; called Silesian miners to embrace their dignity by embracing their religious heritage; and conducted Christmas midnight Mass in the square of godless Nowa Huta until the authorities relented and let a church be built in that grim place. Cardinal Wojtyla, 'wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove' (cf. Mt. 10:6) prevailed by a transcendent, hopeful leadership that baffled his opponents. This is the Pope from a distant country who stood before the world on the central loggia of St. Peter's Basilica, on October 16th, 1978. The defensor civitatis was now also the pontifex maximus. By fearlessly proclaiming the truth about man fully revealed in Christ (GS, 22) he would play a crucial role in liberating Poland, in bringing down the Iron Curtain, and in calling Western democracies to be faithful to that truth upon which hinges all human freedom worthy of the name.

John Paul II's Teaching on Religious Freedom

"There is no liberty without truth," said the Cardinal from Krakow, more than once, at the Second Vatican Council. Steeped in a profound Christian personalism and grounded in the perennial philosophy of realism, Wojtyla arrived at the Council, equipped as few others were, to articulate what revelation and reason teach regarding human dignity and freedom.

As our Universal Pastor, he taught us that freedom is not merely an instinct to gravitate toward what we like or to avoid what we happen to dislike. Nor is it merely a privilege granted to us by the government. Rather freedom is inherent in our very humanity, as our own Declaration of Independence boldly proclaims. Human freedom has to do with the transcendent dignity of the human being. We are created in God's image and likeness and called to friendship with him. The human person is not just the most intelligent being in the world, but rather, is fundamentally different from the rest of creation because at his core he is spiritual. Freedom arises from our interior orientation toward the God who made us and who inscribed in the depths of our consciences a law of nature which guides us to choose what is true, good, and beautiful however flawed we may be as the result of original sin and our personal sins. Freedom, moreover, is not indifferent to the truth about human destiny, the destiny of each person and the destiny of humanity as a whole. Indeed, the question of truth does not arise only after the fact human freedom but rather is inherent in the very dynamic of human freedom. In its orientation to truth, human freedom requires what Pope John Paul II termed "the priority of ethics over technology, the primacy of persons over things, the superiority of spirit over matter" (Redemptor Hominis, no. 16). Human freedom manifests its transcendence in the restlessness of the human spirit expressed by the celebrated words of St. Augustine: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" (Confessions, I,1).

Hence, just as freedom of religion is the first of the freedoms in our own Bill of Rights, so also John Paul II taught us that religious freedom is the core of all human rights. A philosopher, a defender of human rights, a religious leader, John Paul II deeply understood the importance of human autonomy and he firmly rejected any notion that religious truth should be imposed on others or that modern democracies should be dominated by the Church. What he vigorously taught was this essential truth: the denial of the transcendence of the human spirit – whether by totalitarian governments or by deformations of liberal democracy – threatens human autonomy and freedom like nothing else; and he taught that no one brings human dignity and freedom into clearer light than the Eternal Son of God who assumed our humanity, united himself in a certain way with each person, and called each person, even those who do not yet know his Name, to freely embrace His Father's love. (see Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 22). Far from destroying human freedom, this call to love opens the human spirit to the wonder of creation, to the dignity of one's neighbor, and to the work of constructing a civilization of justice, truth, and love. This call to love does not destroy anything authentically human, especially the capacity of human reason for truth, but rather enlightens and ennobles it from within.

But extracting from the heart of man his calling to rise above the world means extracting from man that which differentiates him from all else. The denial of this critical difference in which our dignity as human beings is rooted, sets the stage, sooner or later, for the denial of other human rights, whether it's the right to life, the right to liberty, or the right to happiness. As our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote:

"The right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person whose transcendent nature must not be ignored or overlook… Without the acknowledgement of his spiritual being, without openness to the transcendent, the human person withdraws within himself, fails to find answers to the heart's deepest questions on the meaning of life, fails to appropriate lasting ethical values and principles, and even fails to experience authentic freedom and to build a just society"

- Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace, no. 2, December 8, 2010

Religious freedom, of course, belongs not only to individuals but also to churches, comprised of citizens who are believers, and who seek, not to create a theocracy, but rather to influence their culture from within. The distinction between Church and State, God and Caesar remains "fundamental to Christianity" (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, no. 28). We look to the State not to impose religion but to guarantee religious freedom, and to promote harmony among followers of different religions. The Church has "a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community the State must recognize" (Ibid..). Church and State are distinct yet interrelated.

What the Witness of John Paul II Means for Us

John Paul II seized upon the independence proper to the Church and travelled the globe proclaiming the Gospel. What he learned as a bishop and a Cardinal in Poland he brought to the world stage: a brand of leadership that did not stop at defending human rights, that did not stop at defending the rights of believers and the rights of the Church. To the very end, he boldly and publicly proclaimed how the truth about Christ reveals the truth about the human person. "Be not afraid!" "Open wide the doors to Christ!" ...he proclaimed... 'Not crack the doors open', but throw the doors wide open to Christ... the doors of the human heart and the doors of human culture.

Throughout his life, John Paul II inspired new generations to follow Christ. We have only to think of his boldness in starting up World Youth Day when many advisers told him that such an idea wouldn't work. We have only to think of the millions upon millions of young people who came to be with him in Denver, Manila, Paris, Rome, and Toronto. How many young people found authentic freedom because of this man who preached the Gospel full throated and unsparingly, without fear, without hesitation, indeed without counting the cost.

Are we to see the witness of John Paul II to human dignity and freedom as merely a flash of light that amazes and then quickly fades from memory? Rather, does not his witness to freedom and dignity have a claim on our conscience? Pope John Paul II proclaimed these Gospel values and supported authentic freedom around the world even in countries that were overtly hostile to that message. As Americans, who are guaranteed freedom of religion, who live in a country founded on Judeo-Christian values, there is no excuse for us not to do the same. We must not be afraid to act on our religious values in public and in private. We must help shape our culture for the better, one act, one conversation at a time, as both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict have inspired us to do. And in working for a better culture, we must never lose sight of the dignity of every person – including those with whom we disagree. Our motivation as Christians should be love and we should be known first and foremost for the way we put love into action.

In that spirit of respect and love, Pope Benedict has held up before the world the plight of many Christians in the Middle East whose religious freedom and human rights are trampled upon: the Coptic Christians in Egypt; the Chaldean Christians in Iraq, where, last October, in Baghdad, the Syro-Catholic Cathedral was attacked, claiming the lives of two priests and over fifty of the faithful. We cannot forget that in many Middle Eastern countries, including our allies, it is strictly forbidden to celebrate Mass or to profess the name of Christ. (2011 Message World Day of Peace, op. cit.) We should be concerned about the poverty and lack of opportunity for Palestinian Christians and other restrictions on them that are forcing so many to leave the Holy Land. While we hope for the apparent arrival of democracy in the Middle East let us not forget so many fellow Christians who are often denied the first of their human rights, freedom of religion, and, as a result, many other human rights. We need to ask our own leaders as well as human rights groups and international organizations to speak out for these, our fellow Christians, persecuted and even killed for professing the Name of Christ.

Pope Benedict pointed out not only these overt attacks on religious freedom but also the more subtle undermining of religious freedom here in the West, (ibid.) the sorts of challenges we are seeing on our own shores. For example, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act calls into question the ethical and religious freedom and obligations of health-care professionals and of faith-based heath care institutions. It exempts small groups that generally decline to participate in health care programs. It also exempts groups that choose prayer as their sole form of healing. But it does not exempt the many denominations, which, for reasons of conscience, have rejected specific procedures and drugs which the health-care law deems to be so-called "mandated services". Among the denominations not exempted is the Catholic Church which turns out to be the backbone of nonprofit health-care in the United States. Indeed, there are 615 Catholic hospitals across our country, and that constitutes nearly 13% of all hospitals in the United States.

There are three important bi-partisan bills currently in the Congress: the Protect Life Act (HR # 358), the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (HR # 361), and the Rights of Conscience Act (HR # 1179). All three go a long way toward guaranteeing religious freedom and freedom of conscience for health-care professionals and for faith-based health care institutions. United with my brother bishops and, in the name of religious liberty, I urge these three bills be swiftly enacted and signed into law.

Increasingly, religious freedom in our country is viewed as a "carve out", an exception built into laws which are otherwise an affront to human dignity. This tends to reduce religious freedom to a grant, given by the State, rather than an inalienable right given by the hand of the Creator. But what is granted by the State can be taken away by the State. So, not surprisingly, there are legislative efforts, often by state legislatures, to limit the Church's mission only to worship and to make every other activity of the Church subject to laws that conflict with both human reason and the Church's teaching, on the sanctity of unborn life, the dignity of human life at its conception, and the role of marriage and family in Church and society. Almost everywhere in the United States, the Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental source of charitable, social, and educational services – delivered effectively and with the greatest respect for its recipients. Yet in this very time when the our country is under water financially, many are seeking to restrict the Church's ability to deliver those services. This denial of religious freedom is neither just nor reasonable.

Looking globally at challenges to religious freedom, Pope Benedict recently asserted that "at present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith." And what should be our response to this? Surely, we have much to learn from the wise and canny manner in which Cardinal Wojtyla dealt with the Polish Communist authorities of his day, that astute mix of subtlety and public pressure which those authorities came so to fear. But what he never did and what we must never do is to compromise the truth for in so doing we would compromise our freedom. Rather, we must proclaim the truth boldly. "Be not afraid!" John Paul II says to us from his place in eternity, "Throw open the doors to Christ!" he urges us from his Father's house! Now is the time for us, as committed Catholic leaders, both the ordained and members of the laity, to be bold in defending our Church and in proclaiming the Name of Christ not as a religious problem to be pondered but as "the answer to the question posed by every human life" (John Paul II, Homily in Oriole Park, Baltimore, October 1995). Now is the time for us to build on the example of Pope John Paul II in inviting and in raising up new generations of young Catholic leaders who will go beyond the political and cultural impasses of the present and proclaim the Gospel with fresh hope, insight, and conviction; young people who will use their own means of communication and their own life-experience to proclaim that Gospel which is capable of transforming the world.

In a few days' time, people will converge from all over the world for the Beatification of Pope John Paul the Great in St. Peter's Square. With radiant joy, his Successor, Pope Benedict XVI, will hold up for us the holiness of life of this great teacher of the faith and witness to human dignity. This our beloved Pontiff will do on Divine Mercy Sunday, the Sunday after Easter. Pope John Paul II taught us that the love of the Risen Lord, which we always experience as mercy, unlocks in the human spirit "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious…" (Phil.. 4:8). Helped by his prayers, united in a communion of faith, hope, and love, let us live the truth in freedom and love so as to open wide the doors to Christ!