Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Pope's alarming message on American religious freedom

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 19, 2012

Is it humiliating for American political leaders to read that Pope Benedict sees an erosion of religious freedom in our country? It should be.

If there is one boast that Americans have traditionally made before the world, it is the claim that our country is a bastion of freedom. And of all the freedoms we cherish, religious freedom takes pride of place. In our nation’s history it was the search for religious freedom that drove the Pilgrims to Massachusetts. When the founders presented the people of the newly independent States with a proposed Constitution, popular demand required the addition of the Bill of Rights, beginning with a First Amendment that listed freedom of religion—not of speech—first.

Yet today the Bishop of Rome warns American bishops that their country is losing its status as a nation that honors and promotes freedom of religion. And sad to say, he is right.

When he delivered this unhappy message, in an address to a visiting group of American prelates, Pope Benedict was not telling his guests anything that they did not already know. On the contrary, he said that he was basing his remarks on what the American bishops had told him during their ad limina visits. And what had they told him?

  • that the “Obamacare” plan will involve all American taxpayers in a process that subsidizes abortion;
  • that Catholic adoption agencies have been forced out of business, because of their refusal to comply with orders to place children in the homes of homosexual couples;
  • that a program administered by the US bishops’ conference to help victims of sexual trafficking has been stripped of federal funding because it does not provide for abortion services;
  • that the Obama administration has refused to carry out its legal obligation to defend a law that safeguards the institution of marriage;
  • and yet that the same administration has argued for the proposition—eventually rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court—that religious bodies should be subject to discrimination suits when they choose ministers according to standards a secular court finds unfair;
  • that city clerks are told that they will lose their jobs if they do not certify the marriages of same-sex couples;
  • that Catholic hospitals are being required to furnish abortifacient pills to women who report they have been raped;
  • that Catholic schools are being required to provide contraceptives for students as part of their health-care coverage;
  • that chaplains are being informed that they cannot preach about Biblical injunctions against sodomy;
  • that Church-related institutions have been warned that if they advocate policies in line with their doctrines, they could lose their tax-exempt status;
  • that doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health-care providers are under mounting pressure to cooperate in a host of morally illicit operations.

Notice that this list includes only threats to religious freedom that spring directly from government policies. If we included all the ways in which religious institutions are adversely affected by the hostility of the media, the policies of large corporations, and the active opposition of powerful interest groups, it would be a much longer list.

Clearly Pope Benedict has reason for his concern—reason enough to raise the alarm in today’s address to a group of American bishops. Again, the Holy Father was not really bringing the problem to the attention of these bishops; they already knew it, all too well. Rather, he was using their presence as an opportunity to call the problem to the attention of the listening world.

Now what’s the next move? While the Pope encouraged American bishops to stand firm in defense of religious freedom, the bishops cannot carry that burden alone. He, and they, obviously need to raise public awareness of the issue. So the first test of the effectiveness of his speech will be the media coverage. Will the Pope’s remarks make tomorrow’s headlines? Since the Obama administration is directly responsible for several of the offenses on the list above, will Republican presidential candidates take up the cry to preserve religious freedom? Or will the Pope’s speech pass quietly into the archives, making only a few ripples on the American political scene?


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Jan. 20, 2012 7:44 AM ET USA

    I was wondering if/when you would comment on this. It's really remarkable - I can't think of another Pope that gave such a warning to U.S. bishops at any time in our country's history.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 20, 2012 12:24 AM ET USA

    Who failed to restrain the Catholic Universities? Who allowed homosexuals to infiltrate seminaries? Who is responsible for the miscarriage of Vatican II which was used as cover for heretics and rebels? And now we talk of the "loss" of religous liberty as though it is some alien thing that has descended upon us from without? Lets get real here. Bishops who are lukewarm and even disobedient are not the ones who will save the day. They are, in fact, the reason for the problem.