Roman Catholics are in the crosshairs – in the West and around the world. The reasons are deeply, and tragically, ironic.
Within the West, the Church is the target of scorn, triggered by clerical sexual abuse of male adolescents. Less remarked, but equally insidious, is the gross hypocrisy of bishops and the Vatican ignoring the scourge of priestly unchastity with adults, even as the Church teaches chastity for all within their vocations.
Here’s the irony: Catholic minorities outside the West are being tortured, forced from their homes, unjustly imprisoned, and murdered in no small measure because of their association with the Church’s teachings on the human person — including sexuality, marriage, the value of life, the evil of oppression, and the absolute right of every human being to religious freedom.
Unfortunately, religious persecution is spreading globally. According to Pew Research, over 80 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religion is highly restricted. Numerically Christians suffer the most, with Muslims not far behind. Catholics are particularly vulnerable in the Middle East and Asia.
In Iraq, the depredations of ISIS have devastated the Chaldean Catholic community, the largest of the Iraqi Christian groups. Today Catholicism in Iraq is at risk of being eliminated, as are other non-Muslim minorities. This is a tragedy for the Church, and a national security threat for the United States. Unless non-Muslim minorities can be enticed back, the opportunity for stabilizing pluralism in Iraq will have been lost – perhaps forever. The sons of ISIS and Al Qaeda will return.
In China, the government is accelerating its cruel oppression of Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Protestants, and Catholics. Unfortunately, the Vatican has signed an accord permitting Chinese Communists to control bishop appointments. Among other things, this means China’s bishops will be less likely to witness to the truth about Beijing’s assault on human dignity.
Religious freedom is also declining in the West, including in the United States. For over two centuries religious freedom was styled as “the first freedom” of America because it was understood as necessary for individual, social, and political flourishing. That understanding is now under assault. Many seek to remove religion from American public life, especially in matters of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).
For example, the “Equality Act” recently introduced in Congress would make SOGI a protected class under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, exposing Catholic institutions to lawsuits and financial ruin. It would likely mean loss of tax exemptions for Catholic schools, forcing parents of children with gender dysphoria to facilitate their “transition” to another sex, and driving small business owners who won’t participate in same sex weddings out of business. The inexorable logic of this law, whose premise is that Catholics are like racists, could lead to legal requirements that the Church perform same-sex marriages.
How should Catholics respond to such threats? First, exercise your freedom (there is a reason the First Amendment guarantees “free exercise” of religion). This means more than attending Mass. It means proclaiming and witnessing to truth about justice, human dignity, marriage, and sexuality, and voting and entering into civic engagement accordingly.
Second, defend religious freedom for others – as the Church does in its 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom. Demand the same freedoms for American Muslims, Jews, and all others that you seek. Demand that your government’s foreign policy advance religious freedom for everyone.
Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that faith and reason are “the two wings by which we fly to the truth.” We need both wings if we are to live our lives as the Catholics we are called to be. And we need both if we are to live up to his exhortation: “Be not afraid!”
THOMAS FARR , member of the Northern Virginia Chapter, is president of the Religious Freedom Institute, a D.C based non-profit that advances religious freedom for all people, as a source of human dignity, social and political flourishing, and international security. He was founding director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (1999-2003), and of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center (2011-18). He was an associate professor of the Practice of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service from 2007-2018.