PHILADELPHIA — In recent years, Catholic bishops in the United States have adopted religious liberty as one of their signature issues, largely in response to objections to contraception provisions in the Affordable Care Act that, they say, require Catholic institutions to violate their religious beliefs.
After publicly supporting this cause at the White House Wednesday, Francis gave another — although more implicit — vote of confidence for their efforts during his speech at Independence Hall Saturday. But he looked at religious freedom through a lens of tolerance and diversity, not neuralgic social issues.
American bishops have argued that the religious freedom precepts of the US Constitution grant more than the right to worship (or not) however one chooses; they believe it extends to the totality of one’s life. In addition to the contraception concerns, they say the legalization of gay marriage presents new challenges, such as providing insurance benefits to married same-sex couples.
Speaking in Spanish at the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address, Francis seemed to endorse this interpretation of religious freedom, even if he didn’t weigh in on the specific examples, saying it “transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.”
Standing in front of the historic Colonial-era building where the Declaration of Independence was signed, Francis declared that the right to religious freedom “is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own.”
While Francis avoided explicit mention of social issues, around which much of the debate on religious liberty has circled, his host did not.
“We live at an odd time in history,” said Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leader of the hierarchy’s conservative wing. “When the Church defends marriage and the family, the unborn child and the purpose of human sexuality, she’s attacked as too harsh. When she defends immigrant workers and families that are broken up by deportation, she’s attacked as too soft. And yet she is neither of those things.”
In speeches in Washington and New York, Francis urged his audiences not to give in to efforts to destroy differences, including religious diversity.
For example, he took part in an interfaith prayer service at the 9/11 Memorial Friday, calling on those gathered to oppose “every attempt to create a rigid uniformity” in order to “build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures, and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity.”
“Together we are called to say ‘no’ to every attempt to impose uniformity and ‘yes’ to a diversity accepted and reconciled,” he said.
He repeated those calls at Independence Hall.
He again lamented what he sees as globalization’s efforts to create “a one-dimensional uniformity” and “eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity,” and said people of all faiths must “join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance, and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
He departed from his prepared remarks to speak about the perils of globalization.
“Globalization isn’t bad,” he said. “It unites us, it can be noble.” But in apparent reference to efforts by the developed world to impose its values and practices on the Third World, he warned that if globalization results in homogenization, it will destroy the unique individual traits of each person.
“If it’s an sphere, where everyone is an equal dot, at the same distance from the center, it cancels,” he said. “Don’t be ashamed of that which is an essential part of you.”
Francis said that religions “serve society primarily by the message they proclaim,” and “call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness.”
“They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power,” he continued, slamming the “atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights.”
He thanked those “who have sought to serve the God of peace by building cities of brotherly love, by caring for our neighbors in need, by defending the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages, by defending the cause of the poor and the immigrant.”
“In this witness, which frequently encounters powerful resistance,” the pope said, “you remind American democracy of the ideals for which it was founded, and that society is weakened whenever and wherever injustice prevails.”
The pope’s words in Philadelphia complement those he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly Friday, in which he urged more than 150 world leaders to protect religious minorities — and in many cases, members of the religious majority — in the Middle East and Africa, an allusion to the threat from groups such as ISIS.
He highlighted the “various forms of modern tyranny [that] seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality.”
During Saturday’s speech, Francis again addressed immigration, which, along with the environment, have been constant themes in nearly all the pope’s addresses.
Speaking directly to a crowd of Hispanic immigrants, Francis urged them, “Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation.”
He praised them for “the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life, and all those other values which you have inherited.”
“By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within,” he said.
The pope quoted the Declaration of Independence and said the “history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life.”
He held up as examples the “abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans.”
After arriving in Washington from Cuba Tuesday evening, Francis winds up his US trip Sunday evening in Philadelphia.