I want to start by sharing a story.
Once upon a time, a student at one of the world’s oldest universities took a break from her studies to visit the Catholic chapel on campus. As she sat there in silence—praying for a sick relative or trying to settle her nerves before a test—the chapel suddenly filled with noise. A mob of about seventy fellow students charged in chanting anti-Christian slogans. They shouted obscenities against the Church and insults about the Pope.
Two females in the mob climbed on top of the altar. Then, according to the student who was trying to pray, the women stripped off their shirts and boasted about their homosexual tendencies. The young Catholic student, and several others, left the chapel in fear.
People tend to think of Spain as a Catholic country. But this example of anti-Catholic bigotry happened right here, in this beautiful city, at the Complutense University of Madrid. And it didn’t happen in the 1930s, or even in the 1960s. It happened earlier this year—in March 2011. So today is a good time to talk about religious freedom. And Madrid is a good place to do it.
Religious freedom means being able to worship as we choose. It’s also the liberty to preach, teach, and practice our faith openly and without fear. But it involves even more than that. Religious freedom includes the right of religious believers, leaders, and communities to take part vigorously in a nation’s public life.
Freedom of religion presumes two things.
First, “freedom of religion” presumes that people have free will as part of their basic human dignity. And because they can freely reason and choose, people will often disagree about the nature of God and the best path to knowing him. Some people will choose to not believe in God at all—and they have a right to their unbelief.
Second, “freedom of religion” presumes that questions about God, eternity and the purpose of human life really do have vital importance for human happiness. And therefore people should have the freedom to pursue and to live out the answers they find to those basic questions without government interference.
Freedom of religion cannot coexist with freedom from religion. Forcing religious faith out of a nation’s public square and out of a country’s public debates does not serve democracy. It doesn’t serve real tolerance or pluralism. What it does do is impose a kind of unofficial state atheism. To put it another way, if we ban Christian Churches or other religious communities from taking an active role in our nation’s civic life, we’re really just enforcing a new kind of state-sponsored intolerance—a religion without God.
The degree of religious freedom people enjoy depends on where they live. About 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with severe restrictions on the practice of religion. This ugly reality has only been getting worse.
The so-called “Arab Spring” that happened this year has received a good deal of media coverage. But very little of that coverage has mentioned that the turmoil in Muslim countries has also created a very dangerous situation for Christians and other religious minorities across North Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, angry mobs have attacked Christian churches and monasteries, burning them to the ground and murdering the people inside. Christians have fled in large numbers from anti-Christian violence in Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia. In Saudi Arabia, it’s illegal to own a Bible or wear a crucifix. In Pakistan, Christians face frequent discrimination, slander, beatings, and even murder.
We also need to remember that religious freedom is not only under siege in places like China, North Korea, and many Muslim countries. It’s also at risk even in traditionally free environments like the United States and the European Union. The mob of young bullies who violated the chapel at Complutense University are not alone in their hatred of the Catholic Church and their contempt for religious believers.
In the United States, our battles over abortion, family life, same-sex “marriage”, and other sensitive issues have led to ferocious public smears and legal threats not only against Catholics, but also against Mormons, evangelicals, and other religious believers. And with relatively few exceptions, the mass media tend to cover these disputed issues with a combination of ignorance, laziness, and bias against traditional Christian belief.
This is the reality you will inherit as adults. You need to understand that the Church is your family of faith; and the Church—as Blessed Pope John Paul II once said—is engaged in a struggle for the soul of the world. Each of you, and every other young woman and man who belongs to Jesus Christ, will face opposition, resentment, and even persecution from the contemporary world. And that means you need to prepare yourselves to be good apologists—capable defenders of your faith.
We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, or MSNBC for reliable news about religion. These news media simply don’t provide trustworthy information about religious faith—and sometimes they can’t provide it, either because of limited resources or because of their own editorial prejudices. These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth.
So whom can you trust? Where can you go for reliable news and intelligent discussion about your Catholic faith?
Well, you can come to World Youth Day—but you’ve already done that. Luckily, you live in an age of radically new kinds of information media. You have more media choices, and more ways to access those choices, than I ever could have imagined at your age.
Many of those choices include outstanding Catholic media like Catholic News Agency, EWTN, the National Catholic Register, and Our Sunday Visitor; Salt and Light and Catholic News Service; plus Catholic blogs, websites, and Catholic satellite radio stations. Support these media and encourage their great work for the Church. Visit their websites. “Like” them on Facebook. Follow their Twitter feeds. These excellent media sources will nourish and deepen your faith in ways that the mainstream public media can never provide.
I’ll close with one final thought: We can’t change the direction of the world by ourselves or on our own. But that’s not our job. Our job—and especially your job as young leaders—is to let God change us, and then through us, God will change others and the world. We win the world by winning one soul at a time for Jesus Christ and his Church, starting with ourselves. We win the future by beginning right here, right now, in this time we have together.
Ignorance of the world is a luxury we can’t afford. Being uninformed about the world and its problems and issues is a sin against our vocation as disciples. Love Jesus Christ as your brother and Lord. Love the Church as your mother. Know your faith, know the world and its struggles—and then open your hearts. Let God use you to bring others to the salvation that God intends for all of us.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Roman Catholic Archbishop-designate of Philadelphia, is the former Archbishop of Denver and the author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life. This text is adapted from Archbishop's Chaput's special World Youth Day session for young pilgrims on the the theme of religious freedom, cosponsored by the Knights of Columbus and Catholic News Agency.
Anti-Catholic Protest at Spanish University
Catholic News Agency
National Catholic Register
Our Sunday Visitor
Salt + Light
Catholic News Service
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