Cardinal Dolan: Religious freedom is an ‘essential’ human right

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New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, presents the keynote address June 28, 2021, during the Religious Liberty Summit at the University of Notre Dame Law School. CNS photo/Peter Ringenberg, courtesy University of Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. Religious freedom is a human right, “essential to the dignity of the human person and the flourishing of all that is noble in us,” Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York said in his keynote address for the Religious Liberty Summit at the University of Notre Dame. 

The summit featured ecumenical leaders and scholars from around the nation to discuss the various challenges to religious liberty. It was held as part of the observance of Religious Freedom Week in the U.S., sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Defending religious freedom used to be “a nonconfrontational no-brainer,” as American as “mom, apple pie, the flag and Knute Rockne,” noted Cardinal Dolan, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty. 

Now, he continued, defense of religious liberty has become “caricatured” as an “oppressive, partisan, unenlightened, right-wing crusade,” even considered by some to be discrimination. 

This false narrative must be corrected, Cardinal Dolan stressed, and he proceeded to do so by discussing the concept of religious freedom enshrined in the founding documents of the United States. He made four major points in his keynote, titled “Correcting the Narrative.” 

First, he said that we advocate for religious freedom not primarily because we are believers, but because we are “Americans, patriots, rational human beings.” Religious freedom is a fact of the American experiment that has been cherished and defended by people of all faiths. 

Second, religious liberty is not a conservative issue, but historically considered part of a movement that is “progressive and reforming.” Cardinal Dolan, who has a doctorate in American church history, observed that freedom of religion is “the first line of defense of/and protection of all human rights.” 

Further, religious liberty has been “the driving force of almost every enlightening, unshackling, noble cause in American history,” he said, including movements such as abolition of slavery and the campaigns for voting rights and civil rights. 

Third, “religious freedom is enshrined not to protect the government from religion, but religion from the government,” Cardinal Dolan explained. 

The various religious groups who first settled in this country did not want special treatment from the government, but rather just wanted to be left alone to practice their faith, worship in their tradition and follow their consciences in the public square. Thus, freedom for religion became a keystone in the country’s founding documents. 

Fourth, throughout most of our history, American culture welcomed religious voices in the public square, Cardinal Dolan said. Then the culture moved to neutrality before arriving at the present moment, in which believers face “downright antagonism,” he said, and the message that we must leave our conscience behind when we enter the public square. 

Panelists of various faiths who spoke at the conference stressed the necessity for all people of faith to work together to defend and promote religious liberty in this country and abroad. 

In a panel on “Overcoming Polarization of Religious Liberty,” Asma Uddin, a Muslim attorney and scholar, said that people of various faiths have to stop berating each other if believers are to move forward in obtaining and preserving religious freedom. 

The author of “The Politics of Vulnerability: How to Heal Muslim-Christian Relations in a Post-Christian America” (Pegasus Books, 2021), Uddin said that people will feel less threatened if we stop emphasizing our differences and focus on our common status as human beings. 

A panel on “International Threats to Religious Liberty” featured international speakers, including a representative of the Aid to the Church in Need, Marcela Szymanski. She reported that 62 countries present a danger to their citizens when it comes to religious liberty, even though most of those countries have signed the International Treaty on Human Rights. 

Suppressing religious freedom is always part of a “power-grabbing strategy” with no consequences to the perpetrators, she said. 

A panel on “Religious Liberty and the Press” included representatives of the secular media and one Catholic spokesperson. Gretchen Crowe, editorial director for Our Sunday Visitor periodicals, explained that the Catholic press seeks to form and inform its readers to advance the mission of the Church. That can include filling in gaps, correcting misinformation from the secular media, and providing clarity on significant issues, she said. 

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who is a member of the bishops’ religious liberty committee, welcomed participants to the diocese and praised the Notre Dame Law School for establishing the Religious Liberty Initiative. 

That initiative, begun by Dean G. Marcus Cole of the law school, will assemble international scholars to study the issue, train law students to defend religious freedom by pursuing claims in the courts, and organize events like the June summit. Two future summits are planned for Rome in 2022 and Jerusalem in 2023. 

Bishop Rhoades told the conference that not only was the initiative a great service to the Catholic Church and to all communities of faith, but also a service to our nation at a time when not just freedom to worship is threatened, but so too is the freedom to live out our faith and bear witness to its moral truths in social services, schools and other institutions that serve the common good. 

“Religious freedom allows the Church and all religious communities to live out their faith in public and to serve the good of all,” Bishop Rhoades said. 

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