Catholic Americans could be forgiven for thinking that the battle over religious freedom begins and ends with the recent uproar over efforts by the federal department of Health and Human Services to force Catholic institutions to provide services that violate Church teaching.
In fact, there are other issues domestically that should concern Americans when it comes to religious freedom that won’t go away, whatever the courts rule on the HHS mandate.
It is also true, however, that the recent alarm here at home is leading to increased attention among Catholics about the growing number of threats to religious liberty worldwide.
Earlier this month, I attended a conference on “International Religious Freedom: An Imperative for Peace and the Common Good.” Its sponsors were the U.S. bishops’ conference, Catholic Relief Services and The Catholic University of America (CUA). According to Bishop Richard Pates, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, it grew out of a request by Cardinal Timothy Dolan that international religious freedom issues receive as much attention as the domestic struggle.
Part of the power of a conference on religious freedom issues worldwide is that it puts the U.S. struggle in perspective. Cardinal Dolan himself acknowledged that while “there are serious challenges to religious freedom within our own nation … they are of a different order than those faced by Christians and other people of faith in many countries.”
Indeed, the statistics make it clear: 150,000 Christians killed for their faith every year, far more than any other religious group. The U.S. State Department estimates that “more than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedoms,” and other speakers at the conference put that number even higher. One estimate was that 70 percent of the world lives in countries where religious freedom is restricted.
Thomas Farr, a former Foreign Service officer and currently the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, warned of a “deepening crisis” of religious freedom, calling it “a problem close to home, and not just in the Third World.” He noted an increase in religious intolerance in Europe. Europeans not only have lost the sense that religion is important, but increasingly think that religious belief is dangerous, he said.
John Carr, until recently the head of the bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, shared lessons learned from his many years of service to the bishops, emphasizing how long the U.S. bishops have been involved in religious freedom struggles, from Cuba and Lithuania to China and Iraq.
One of the most provocative talks was by Maryann Cusimano Love of CUA, who called religious freedom “a women’s rights issue as well as a security issue,” since women are more likely to be believers and suffer from such oppression.
Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama’s administration and a Catholic, gave an exhaustive history of the administration’s efforts on behalf of religious freedom around the globe. But his talk unintentionally underscored the fact that the domestic and international religious freedom issues cannot be easily separated. He left it unnoted that his fulsome praise for the administration was taking place at a university that was suing to block the HHS mandate on religious freedom grounds.
Or, as Carr noted earlier, when our own government is willing to define what is or is not a religious ministry, we have a lot of work on religious freedom here at home.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.