Catholic Cardinal Urges Defense of Religious Freedom

In a historic speech given at Brigham Young University before an appreciative audience of many thousands of students, faculty and Church leaders, Cardinal Francis George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, eloquently argued the need to defend religious freedom.  “The question of freedom lies at the heart of modern society’s deepest conflicts,” Cardinal George said, “because it always lies at the heart of who we are as creatures made in the image and likeness of a God who loves us freely.” 

This cause of religious freedom unites believers in a common interest. Demonstrating a spirit of solidarity, Cardinal George urged further cooperation between Catholics, Mormons and “other defenders of conscience:”

"We can and should stand as one in the defense of religious liberty. In the coming years, interreligious coalitions formed to defend the rights of conscience for individuals and religious institutions should become a vital bulwark against the tide of forces at work in our government and society to reduce religion to a purely private reality.  At stake is whether or not the religious voice will be heard in the public square."

Explaining key principles undergirding religious freedom, Cardinal George pointed to “the lesson of American history … that churches and other religious bodies prosper in a nation and social order that respects religious freedom and recognizes that civil government should never stand between the consciences and the religious practices of its citizens and Almighty God.” 

The cardinal advocated not merely the absence of obstacles to free worship but also the vibrant participation of religion in the public square:

"Religious freedom cannot be reduced to freedom of worship, nor even freedom of private conscience. Religious freedom means that religious groups, as well as religious individuals, have a right to exercise their influence in the public square, and that any attempt to reduce that fuller sense of religious freedom, which has been part of our history in this country for more than two centuries, to a private reality of worship and individual conscience, as long as you don’t make anybody else unhappy, is not in our tradition. It was the tradition of the Soviet Union, where Lenin permitted freedom of worship to be placed into the constitution … but not freedom of religion."

Because religious freedom is so central to human dignity and liberty, it must be approached with civility. In an address on religious freedom at BYU-Idaho, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, proposed freedom of religion is “a cornerstone of American democracy” and is enhanced by the virtues of “speak[ing] with love always showing patience, understanding and compassion toward our adversaries.”

Thus, the principle of religious freedom brings with it a particular ethic. And with that ethic comes an obligation. The ethic is for people of faith to be, in Elder Oaks’ words, more “persuasive in political discourse by framing arguments and positions in ways that are respectful of those who do not share their religious beliefs.” The companion obligation is for those arguments and positions to “contribute to the reasoned discussion and compromise that is essential in a pluralistic society.”

Cardinal George’s address was a persuasive and respectful contribution to our pluralistic society.

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