Religious freedom | It is more than freedom to worship

In a class I co-taught on religious freedom last fall, many of the students seemed to arrive with a sense that there wasn’t much to talk about. In the U.S., we have always given individuals religious freedom, and we should keep doing that. If any question should arise the maxim of John Stuart Mill— “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”—would resolve the matter quickly.

Happily, our location at least suggested the topic’s rich history. Our class took place in Providence, Rhode Island, two miles or so from the spot where Roger Williams, banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on account of his views, stumbled out of the wilderness to begin a radical new experiment. In Massachusetts, Williams had spoken publicly against the punishment of religious dissenters. In Providence, he worked with others to establish bold protections for individual “liberty of conscience.” The fruits of that experiment were new forms of religious freedom, and protections for many religious minorities. Indeed, the proximity to our classroom was no accident. Among the religious minorities who sought out this liberty were Catholics, and there is a clear link to Rhode Island’s ultimate (and current) status as the most heavily Catholic state in the union.

As conversation got underway, however, I realized that many of our students held to assumptions that had to be challenged. In our conversations, the complexity and importance of religious freedom began to emerge.

First, many of our students understood freedom of religion as reducible to freedom of worship. Freedom to worship is certainly a crucial freedom, but freedom of religion is a much broader category, and one that goes beyond the private sphere into the public square. Freedom of religion involves the ability to organize schools and other charitable organizations, to enter into the political process with religious commitments, and generally to conduct oneself in accordance with one’s religious convictions and conscience. It is here, of course, in interaction with those whose religious convictions differ, that challenges can arise.

Second, many of our students assumed that the only interpretation of the First Amendment consisted in a Jeffersonian sense of a “wall of separation” between church and state. Thomas Jefferson used this phrase in a letter he penned in 1802, and it offers a metaphor that seems to be extremely stark: these two entities are to be separated in an absolute, with neither touching the other in any way. In the last fifty years or so, this has become an increasingly prevalent interpretation of the First Amendment. But it was not always so. Jefferson himself was more complicated in practice. As governor of Virginia, he called for public days of prayer, and as president, he directed federal funds to Christian missionaries and encouraged local governments to make land available for Christian purposes. John Adams, meanwhile, leaned more in the direction of what has come to be called the “accommodationist” view: the belief that religion is essential is fostering moral values required for maintaining civil order, and that religion is part of the national heritage. The precise meaning of the First Amendment is not simple, but it is crucial for the way in which we understand freedom of religion.

Finally, many of our students were simply unfamiliar with the tradition at the very heart of Christianity that requires fidelity to God before fidelity to any other authority, including civil government. They might have heard of early Christian martyrs, but they did not know that martyrs could have escaped their fate, if they would only have offered worship to Caesar. Even more immediately relevant, they did not know of the Thomistic tradition—essential to modern civil disobedience—that insists that laws not rooted in the larger ideal of justice are not to be regarded as laws at all. In some cases, disobedience to laws of this kind is actually a moral imperative.

Over the course of the semester, we discussed many topics, but these three especially made us all more aware of what is at stake in advancing claims of religious freedom—and why such claims must be treated with great care.

Holly Taylor Coolman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College.

Forging a Path to Interreligious Action for Peace

What does it take to build peace among people divided by religion? Is it dialogue about beliefs, traditions, and values that creates greater understanding, and thus more harmony? Or is it joint action that generates cooperation and strengthens relationships? The resounding answer from Catholic Relief Services’ interreligious peacebuilding experience is: both. Talking theology matters, but so does the opportunity to work side-by-side and put values into practice.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has been supporting peace and development efforts since the height of the country’s civil war, programs invite people to connect through dialogue and action. Young people, many of whom attend segregated schools and have never heard stories of the war from the perspective of other ethnic and religious groups, jointly visit one another’s places of worship, perform musical concerts together, and collaborate on art exhibitions, and carry out cooperative community initiatives across religious lines. These shared activities are important to create common experiences and connections.

But deeply held perceptions and attitudes do not change through these joint activities alone; it is also important to delve into values and histories that connect and divide people. Young people have the opportunity to do so through seminars, dialogue sessions, and participatory theatre. Another important tool that CRS has been using in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been “Speaking Out” events, in which war victims share their stories of suffering at the hands of other ethnic and religious groups, and their journeys towards reconciliation. For many in the audience, young and older, this may be the first time that they are confronted with the “other side’s” narrative of the past. While this is challenging, it also opens them to the possibility of greater empathy for people from the other groups.

The stronger relationships and improved mutual understanding that emerge from activities like these prepare the ground for concrete steps towards reconciliation. These can include local initiatives involving ordinary citizens as well as building a vision for changes in the institutions that touch the lives of the broader population. A case in point is a national “Platform for Peace” just recently adopted by the highest level of government in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This Platform, developed at CRS’ initiative in collaboration with local partners and a range of key leaders, commits government officials and other authorities to work for long-term peace and reconciliation through measures such as institutionalizing trust-building mechanisms, reducing divisive rhetoric, and promoting peace education in schools. Over 40% of the country’s mayors have also signed on to the Platform for Peace, and have pledged to dedicate resources from their local budgets to put it into action.

In another landmark move, the deans of the country’s three theology schools – Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim – recently announced a joint Master’s degree program in interreligious peacebuilding. This program, which will accept its first students in the fall, is the first of its kind in the region. It is the fruit of several years of patient and steady work on the part of the seminary representatives, supported and accompanied by CRS as they worked to bring their vision to life. Graduates of the program will emerge with a strong grounding in the three faith traditions’ teaching on peace, justice, and ethics; internship experiences will also give them strong practical skills to contribute to forging unity in their communities and country.

What barriers divide people of different faiths in your community? What opportunities do you see to forge connections across these barriers, through dialogue and action?

Nell Bolton is Senior Technical Advisor for Justice & Peacebuilding at Catholic Relief Services.

To learn more about what works in interreligious peacebuilding, download a copy of CRS’ new book, Interreligious Action for Peace: Studies in Muslim-Christian Cooperation.

Pray for Religious Freedom

Aaron Weldon,  Religious Liberty Program Specialist, USCCB

We come to enjoy true freedom when our restless hearts find rest in the truth. The great twentieth century philosopher, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – or, Edith Stein – discovered truth in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, and sought freedom by entering the Discalced Carmelites.  The convent didn’t stop her from reaching out.  During the rise of Nazism, Stein spoke up. She wrote to Pope Pius XI asking the Church to speak up on behalf of persecuted Jews, and she wrote her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, “as a way to combat racial hatred.”  She was captured in 1942 and taken to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chamber shortly after arrival.  Stein was executed primarily because she was Jewish, and the Catholic Church considers her a Christian martyr, because she bore witness to her faith in Jesus before her executioners.

Having spent much of my life in the university, I admire Edith Stein. Her intellectual vocation led her to faith, her relationship with God led her to prayer, and her life of prayer was bound up with her outreach to others.  She enjoyed an interior freedom that opened out to service.

We can grow in both interior freedom and solidarity with others through prayer. In prayer, we express our dependence on God, and we take on the burdens of those for whom we pray.  During this Fortnight, here is how I will be praying:

  • For Bishops and all Catholic leaders. Many Christians may not realize religious liberty is an issue, because they don’t experience an infringement on their own freedom. But the issue is real for medical professionals like Cathy Decarlo, a nurse who was forced to participate in an abortion, or for ministries that serve immigrants in states prohibiting the “harboring” of undocumented persons. Pastors and leaders face serious challenges, and they need the wisdom and courage of the Holy Spirit. We can pray for them.
  • For Christians facing violent persecution. In the West, we are dealing with what Pope Francis calls “polite persecution.” Polite persecution is real, but it pales in comparison to the struggles of Christians in Pakistan, Syria, and other places. In the face of this suffering, it can be difficult for most of us to know what we can do. Certainly, we can support organizations, like Aid to the Church in Need, that work to assist Christians under extreme duress in places like Iraq. We can also pray for our brothers and sisters, as well as for the conversion of the persecutors.
  • For non-Christian fellow Americans. Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom, rooted in the nature of the human person. So all people must be immune from coercion, free to pursue the truth and live the truth as best as they understand it. Many Americans are impeded in their search. For example, Muslims have faced challenges in recent years. Several states have passed anti-Sharia laws, local governments have tried to use zoning laws to prevent the construction of houses of worship, and the White House has imposed a travel ban that courts have found is aimed at preventing Muslims from entering the country. These actions give rise to a culture in which Muslims are treated as second-class citizens. As Catholics, we should be aware of these challenges, as we ourselves have been the target anti-Catholic bigotry. That bigotry gave us Blaine Amendments that we are still fighting today. Religious freedom for all does not mean we are resigned to relativism; it simply means that governments do not get to coerce people in matters of faith. It means that the state recognizes a space for non-state institutions, and this is the same space we Christians enjoy to propose the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Please join me in praying for our neighbors, co-workers, and fellow Americans, that we all will be free to seek and live out religious truth.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is Religious Liberty Program Specialist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Our Border Family: Hope at the Border

During “Hugs Not Walls,” families who live separated by the United States-Mexico border were able to see and embrace each other for a few previous minutes.

The Catholic church is taking a compassionate, non-confrontational approach to the plight of people in three dioceses along the U.S. border with Mexico. It’s also using exquisitely simple, Gospel-based principles to underscore human dignity and address systemic poverty and injustice.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso told me his Texas diocese and the contiguous ones in Juarez, Mexico and Las Cruces, New Mexico form the largest bi-national community in the hemisphere, if not the world. “The very nature of our border area is it’s a family. It’s a large community that has had a line drawn through it,” he said. And it has long been this way. People in the area move freely across the border to shop, eat, and be with family. The result is an active community where the unique nature of the towns on either side of the river contributes something to strengthen and improve their neighbors.

Bishop Seitz of El Paso celebrates Mass on the United States-Mexico border.

The longstanding reality of intermingled families and thriving communities is a counterpoint to an increasingly strident national narrative about borders. Bishop Seitz points to the head-scratching portrayal of the border as a forbidding place of confrontation “where the ‘us’ people fend off the ‘them’ people, where the people at home fight off the aliens. That has no resonance here,” he said.

The Hope Border Institute is a new-since-2015 grassroots effort to apply Catholic social teaching principles to immediate and longer-term issues along the border. It sprang from conversations among local clergy in the three dioceses and people in several groups funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). They were looking for a way to address the fall-out from a growing number of policies imposed on the area that frankly made little sense.

When I asked him about it, Dylan Corbett, the group’s executive director, said laws and regulations made in Austin, Washington, DC and Mexico City do not necessarily correspond to realities on the ground. Sometimes they cause new problems without solving the challenges they were intended to fix. He pointed out there is already a wall and a new wall likely won’t do what is promised because it doesn’t address the root causes of poverty and injustice on both sides of the border and won’t stop the flow of illegal drugs.

The Hope Border Institute brings together CCHD-funded groups, activists, and grassroots organizations, low-wage workers and migrants, members of the media, young persons, academics, church workers, and clergy to share perspectives, explore Catholic social teaching, and look through the eyes of others living in the border communities. It helps people work collectively and intentionally across “borders” of geography, race, and ethnicity. And it trains and empowers leaders across both the faith community and civil society to witness the power of unity in diversity and community.

Best of all, it’s working! People who might never have spoken and shared stories now see and begin to understand the experience, perspective, and human dignity of each other.

Bishop Seitz said, “The role of the Church and its teaching is such an important counterpoint to the uninformed reaction people have had to these border questions.” How true.

Beth Griffin is a free-lance journalist with an abiding interest in social justice.

Hope Border Institute is funded by the Strategic National Grant Program of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Read more about their work in the most recent edition of the CCHD Newsletter: Helping People Help Themselves.


Going Deeper!

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Office of Education & Outreach are partnering to foster encounter in other ways.  Our new small grants program seeks to foster Hispanic ministry-social justice diocesan collaboration, and this recent webinar lifted up examples of where this is already successfully happening around immigration, workers’ rights, trafficking, and other issues affecting the immigrant community.

 

All photos courtesy of Hope Border Institute.

Get Ready for World Refugee Day!

Todd Scribner, Education Outreach Coordinator, Migration & Refugee Services/USCCB

Every year on June 20, the international community acknowledges World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the conditions confronting the millions of people who have been forced from their homes and countries under threat of persecution and possible death and to acknowledge their humanity.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of forcibly displaced people globally to be at about 65.3 million, including 21.3 refugees. We are today experiencing the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II. This is a troubling fact that deserves careful attention and global collaboration.

World Refugee Day provides us all an opportunity to better understand the international circumstances that give rise to displacement, the various solutions that are in place to respond to the problem, and the important role of the U.S. resettlement system in this process. While important, it is not enough for us to merely learn about refugees; we must also act and advocate in solidarity with them

At a recent audience of Catholic and Lutheran pilgrims, Pope Francis emphasized this point, declaring that “you cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian… It is hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who needs my help.”

Spurred by the Holy Father’s words, we turn to numerous refugee crises around the world about which we can both learn and act upon.

The crisis in Syria and Iraq continues to be a pressing concern for the leadership of the Catholic Church as countless millions of men, women, and children continue to be displaced and persecuted because of the ongoing conflict. The forced migration of children and families from the Northern Triangle in Central America is also a troubling phenomenon.

In both situations, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for expanded protections for the most vulnerable populations in these migrant flows. It is imperative that the international community of nations and civil society, including faith communities, work together in both challenging situations, addressing the root causes of forced migration and putting into place solutions that will provide alternatives to forced migration in both regions.

While both Syria and Central America continue to be a source of troubling refugee crises, we should not forget other parts of the world wherein forced migration is also ongoing phenomenon. The conflict in South Sudan has stretched on for over four years, and is Africa’s largest displacement crisis today. As of October 2016, 1.2 million people had fled South Sudan as refugees to neighboring countries. Other sizable populations have fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, and elsewhere in recent years.

We invite you to download, distribute, and use our World Refugee Toolkit, which contains spiritual-related resources, as well as advice on how to use media to draw attention to the problem, and suggested initiatives that you can use in your local community.

Additionally, a series of other resources is available that highlight various aspects of the refugee resettlement program is available. These publications were created to help you better understand issues related to refugees and other forms of forced migration.

Finally, in addition to learning about these issues, it is important that we act. One way that you can do this is by signing up for the Justice for Immigrants campaign. By doing so, you will receive information about new resources as they become available alongside time sensitive action alerts. By engaging these alerts, you will be in a position to help shape public policy on migration related issues and to help ensure that the human dignity of migrants is respected in the law and in our communities.

Todd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB. 

Transforming Neighborly, Spiritual Bonds: Teens Empowered in Interfaith Engagement

By Claire Hoffmeyer, Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin

Nine years of youth ministry boils down to one simple, humbling truth: teenagers teach and transform me. I consistently seek to alter their lives by sharing the Gospel message, developing catechetical programming and availing the lived wisdom I believe to possess, yet it’s the teens who challenge me, renew me.

Our community located west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin offers affluence, academia, and an array of faiths to accompany you whether you pray in a temple, synagogue, church, or mosque. I both work and pray at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish located on a busy corner intersection in the heart of our suburb. Less than two miles northeast, a friend of mine leads fellow Muslims in prayer at Masjid Al-Noor—a mosque of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, a new addition to our neighborhood.

Our parish welcomes these new neighbors in a myriad of ways. We opened our church hall prior to the mosque’s groundbreaking so that the community could engage in dialogue. Soon thereafter, Masjid Al-Noor leaders used the church hall to examine the blueprints of their worship space. Annually, we collaborate on a seasonal project at the local farmer’s market. In these ways, we recognize and celebrate our neighborly bonds.

Last April, our community expanded. I welcomed Jewish, Lutheran, Nondenominational Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Mormon, and Muslim teen representatives to our parish. This was not in an effort to evangelize or convert. Rather, this was a response to a request of our active interfaith community for more youth engagement and empowerment.

My mission was to offer space for interfaith teens to explore the graces of interfaith collaboration and dialogue. I sought to cultivate young leaders equipped with training in diversity particularly regarding religious views and practices because interfaith dialogue can give birth to mutual understanding, respect, and friendship of all people, no matter how or where you worship.

These youth delegates commune unlike any youth group. They treat each other with kindness and gentle curiosity about each other’s faith beliefs. They laugh with one another.  Every time we gather, roaring laughter fills the space. They like one another and are genuinely excited to just be in each other’s company. They captivate one another. They leave no room for division, intolerance, or cruelty. The differences they have, they embrace. Impressively, they exercise these behaviors effortlessly.

Youth, they teach you; they transform you.

Challenged by a most recent saint, we aim to “recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us, in order to preserve and promote together for the benefit of all men, ‘peace, liberty, social justice and moral values’ as the Council calls upon us to do.” This call by St. Pope John Paul II in an address to our Church in 1979, nearly forty years ago still holds true today, especially as we witness fear, injustice, violence, and hate toward our Muslim neighbors.

How can we combat the cruel attitudes and behaviors toward our Muslim brothers and sisters?

The youth delegates strive for peace and justice through unity. Two young ladies, one a member of St. John Vianney and the other a member of Masjid Al-Noor presented, “Gratitude Unites Us,” the youth delegates’ collaborative video project screened at last November’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service.

The ladies prepared an address, written and rehearsed extensively together, and called us to action. They commanded all to set aside our divisions and instead practice an attitude of gratitude. When grateful, we refuse to let our separateness distract, rule, or divide us. We recognize we share in one humanity in which we have much to be grateful.

Through their powerful contributions, our youth delegates unassumingly displayed transformation from division to unity. They know how to be good neighbors. They love others, their faith, and God fiercely—they find unity in this shared love and gratitude. Muslim, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, and Mormon teenagers have imparted this wisdom, this truth, upon my heart. I am forever transformed.

I invite you to consider extending a hand to your neighbors in faith. Look to your community’s teens—they’ll model for you just how to preserve and promote the spiritual bonds that unite us all. Enjoy your transformation!

Claire Hoffmeyer is Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin. In 2007, Claire graduated with a degree in Sociology, Justice and Peace Studies and Writing from Marquette University. Since then, through her work with youth and families at Saint John Vianney Claire has been exploring her vocation in ministry gaining practical wisdom in a faith that does justice.


Going Deeper!

St. John Vianney’s work was recently featured on WeAreSaltAndLight.org, which also includes resources and tools from USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Praying for Conscience and Courage

Bible Group Praying Together Holding Hands With Eyes ClosedI read a prayer recently, titled “Prayer for Conscience and Courage” by Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister. I was struck by the title and even more by the prayer. What does it mean to pray for “conscience”?  Isn’t a conscience simply what all of us have, that is, a working conscience that somehow lets us know what is right and what is wrong?

By Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (No. 1784), so we know it is important to learn and form our conscience with Scripture and Catholic teaching.  But prayer for conscience — how does that fit?

Again, in the catechism we read, “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice” (No. 1785). So, in order to educate our consciences, we need to pray with Scripture. We pray that we can become what it is God is dreaming for us. Right?

The prayer begins with the words, “Loving God, lead us beyond ourselves to care…”  Then, I had a light-bulb moment when I read more of the prayer:

“Give us the conscience it takes to comprehend what we’re facing, to see what we’re looking at and to say what we see so that others, hearing us, may also brave the pressure that comes with being out of public step.”

So, this prayer is written to help us in this difficult time — a time of great uncertainty and change. Sister Joan is suggesting that we pray, asking God to give us wisdom — God’s wisdom — to help us see what is happening around us and in our world as God sees it and act accordingly.

Doing this kind of prayer is not something we automatically do. We pray for someone who is sick, for personal things we need or are worried about, but we do not often pray for a conscience that is awake, open to seeing as God sees and open to acting on that seeing. More often, we see the world through a lens that thinks more of personal needs than of the needs of all, or the common good, as Jesus and our church teaches us.

I think about poverty. Do we have a conscience that helps us see poverty as God does?

Here are a couple of people I believe have a conscience that helps them see as God sees.

Pope Francis says this: “The times talk to us of so much poverty in the world and this is a scandal. Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children … without an education, so many poor persons.”

Dorothy Day said: “We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it,” and “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Mother Teresa said: “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”

Is this the way you see poverty?  Maybe each of us has a way to go to think of poverty the way these “saints” do, but it’s important that our conscience is moving us in that direction, one step at a time.

Years ago, I had the honor of meeting a priest who had a parish in the middle of a poverty-stricken, gang-infested part of Los Angeles called Dolores Mission. At the beginning of his work there, a group of mothers came to him, to inform his “conscience” and call him to action as they spoke to him of their fear for their sons’ lives. Gangs had taken over the neighborhood and there was a lot of violence between rival gangs.

Father Greg heard the mothers and let their love inform his conscience, and he has worked in his ministry to gang members for over 30 years.  When I think of someone who has a well-formed conscience and someone who sees poverty and gang members as God sees them, I know it is Father Greg Boyle.

When speaking of the attitude we should have about poverty, he says, that we should  “seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

Along with a well-formed conscience, Sister Joan added a prayer for courage. It makes sense considering that we are to follow Jesus and the radical love he showed to all of God’s people, especially those people who others shunned.  We can’t do that on our own. We need God’s help.

Join me in a prayer for conscience and courage as we remember who Jesus was and what he sacrificed for all of creation.

Kathy Langer is director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud.

This blog post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the Visitor of the Diocese of Saint Cloud.


Going Deeper!

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops remind us that conscience formation is a “lifelong task” (no. 5).  Read this handout (also in Spanish) and read this Scripture reflection (also in Spanish) on the ongoing task of forming our consciences.