The Catholic Church and the Global Crisis of Religious Liberty

Thomas Farr, of the  Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, gave this talk to the recent session of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  

Farr’s talk provides interesting context to the threats that our own government is posing to our religious liberties.  He starts with three important points:

First, both history and modern scholarship demonstrate that a robust system of religious liberty in both law and culture is indispensible to individual human dignity and to the social, economic, intellectual, political and religious flourishing of civil societies and of nations.

Second, religious liberty is in global crisis, with enormous consequences for the Church, the United States, the success of democracy, the defeat of religion-based terrorism, and the cause of international justice and peace.

Third, propositions one and two are highly contested. Outside the West, where religious belief and practice are widespread and growing, the idea of religious freedom in full — i.e., full equality under the law, in private and in public, for all religious ideas and actors — is highly suspect.

Farr cites two Pew Center reports on world religious freedom.

The first report revealed a profoundly disturbing statistic: 70% of the world’s population lives in countries in which religious freedom is either highly or very highly restricted, either by governments or private actors.  

Most of those people live in 66 countries. Of those, most are either Muslim-majority nations, communist regimes such as China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam, or large non-Muslim states such as India, Burma and Russia.

The second report demonstrated that the problem is getting worse.

Farr identifies the root cause of the global crisis of religious liberty.

And yet, the root cause is quite similar: a belief that religious freedom is not only unnecessary for human flourishing or social development, but that it poses a threat to these and other goods. Of course, those views are not new. Modern tyrants, from Stalin, Hitler and Mao to Mexico’s Plutarco Calles, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar Assad, have sought either to eliminate religious ideas and actors altogether or to control and suppress them in order to keep their regimes in power.

What is new, and profoundly troubling, is that we are seeing today the rejection of religious freedom not simply by authoritarian regimes in places like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but by democratic majorities in places like Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Western Europe. These majorities seem unwilling to embrace the core of religious freedom, which is full equality under the law in private and in public matters for all religious individuals and institutions.

What is to be done to address the crisis?  First, we understand that,

The Church has always been the repository of the most powerful argument for religious liberty, namely, the fundamental dignity and equality of every person in the eyes of God.

Our U.S. foreign policy must change.  First, Farr points out that, 

In short, our international religious-freedom policy is weak because the intellectual roots of religious liberty in America are weak. Too many of our elites no longer believe that religious freedom is the first freedom. Those intellectual roots need to be strengthened, which is, I might note, one goal of our Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown.

What part does the Church have in this?

It is here — in strengthening our understanding of the value of religious freedom — that I believe the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in America can make their greatest contribution.

The Church is uniquely positioned to help reclaim a sense of the importance of religious liberty. Its theology as well as its natural law and personalist philosophies teach that each person possesses inherent dignity and worth, a dignity and worth at the root of any argument for religious freedom.

As Farr points out, the stakes are incredibly high.


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