Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, has served the Church in Iran and Nigeria, both countries where contemporary Christians have been persecuted. Thus, it was no surprise that he was invited to deliver the Nov. 4 keynote for the Notre Dame conference “Seed of the Church: Telling the Story of Today’s Christian Martyrs.” 

What was surprising was that he focused most of his remarks on what he perceives as threats to religious freedom in the United States. 

Political pressure

Archbishop Vigano
Archbishop Vigano

In recent times, Archbishop Viganò said, religious persecution may not mean torture or death, but it can be an effort to harass and marginalize religious people and prevent them from participating in public life. 

He noted “legitimate concerns about religious liberty posed by the uncertainties surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” “However, this is by no means the only source of concern: When Catholic charities and businesses owned by faithful Catholics are pressured to alter their cherished beliefs, the problem is experienced in other venues,” he said. “In short, the menace to religious liberty is concrete on many fronts. Evidence is emerging which demonstrates that the threat to religious freedom is not solely a concern for nondemocratic or totalitarian regimes. Unfortunately, it is surfacing in greater regularity in what many consider the greatest democracy of the world. This is a tragedy for not only the believer but also for democratic society.” 

Archbishop Viganò stressed that religious liberty is important for the ultimate dignity of the human person. He went on to cite the “legitimate reservation” of U.S. bishops triggered by the Health and Human Services mandate.

Role of laity

Citing Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici (On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World), he said that the bishops are the teachers of the faith, but laity should exercise a “major role” in implementing the faith in public affairs. 

Thus, he applauded the efforts of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to exhort Catholics to confront these challenges. However, Archbishop Viganò was critical of Catholics who align themselves with forces that oppose the Church on issues like abortion, embryonic stem cell research and same-sex marriage. 

“There is a divisive strategy at work here,” he said. “By intentionally dividing the Church through this strategy, the body of the Church is weakened, and thus the Church can be more easily persecuted.