Religious Liberty and the Year of Faith
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
“What is to be said concerning the relations between the Church and civil society? We are living in the midst of a new political world,” the Holy Father said. “One of the fundamental rights which the Church can never renounce is that of religious liberty, which is not merely freedom of worship. The Church vindicates and teaches this liberty, and on that account, she continues to suffer anguishing pain in many countries,” he said.
“The Church cannot renounce this liberty,” he explained, “because it is inseparable from the service she is bound to fulfill. This service does not stand as the corrective or the complement of what other institutions ought to do, or have appropriated to themselves, but it is an essential and irreplaceable element of the design of Providence to place man upon the path of truth and liberty, which are the building stones upon which human civilization is raised.”
The pope’s words focus on one of the most urgent issues we face today the freedom to live our Christian faith in the world, not merely to worship privately. Christians today are suffering persecution for their faith in many parts of the world (as our Secretary of State has recently reported). This is hardly new, as we know from history. But what is a recent phenomenon and a very troubling one is that even within our own country, with religious liberty as one of its key founding principles acting on our deepest religious convictions is now under threat.
It is particularly interesting that these words of the pope were, in fact, spoken almost exactly fifty years ago by Pope John XXIII, on September 11, 1962, in a radio message to the world preparing for the opening of the Second Vatican Council a month later.
In proclaiming the Year of Faith beginning October 11, Pope Benedict specifically mentioned that this date marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The deepening of the crisis of faith and further erosion of the freedom to practice that faith, in the decades following the Second Vatican Council, also led Pope Benedict to call for a world Synod of Bishops dedicated to “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” to take place October 7-28.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s great contribution: the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This summary of essential Catholic doctrinal and moral teaching is a key component of what he termed the “new evangelization.” This “new evangelization” is not simply bringing the truth of Christ and of God’s love to remote regions of the world, once known as “mission territories,” but re-evangelizing the people in formerly Christian countries where the Christian faith has so dramatically deteriorated in recent years that it has now become “mission territory,” as several bishops have observed.
As Pope Benedict has pointed out more than once, the assaults against Christianity come not only from outside, but, even more devastatingly, it is attacked from within by people who profess to be Christian, who may even be leaders within the churches or hold influential public offices. The secularization of Western society is pervasive. Even among those who still profess to be Christian, many reject the idea that there can be any truth beyond their own perceptions.
In his famous homily in April 2005, before the conclave that would elect him pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger warned: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
He stressed that “We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth. We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith only faith that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.”
A recovery of “true humanism” squarely based on the perennial truth about human nature and human relationships that transcends any particular age or culture and is not limited by any ideology is essential to achieve unity among people of all cultures and the common good of humanity.
This, then, is our call, our vocation, today our call to strengthen our own faith in order that we can transmit it to others; our call to authentic action and fearless witness to God’s truth in order to serve Christ and His Church; our call to bring the fullness of Christ’s truth and His redeeming love to all people. For only this truth and this love can overcome the moral anarchy that has deeply fragmented our society.
“We want this Year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope,” Pope Benedict wrote in his announcement of this Year of Faith (Porta Fidei 9).
“It will also be a good opportunity to intensify the celebration of the faith in the liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, which is ‘the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; and also the source from which all its power flows.’ At the same time, we make it our prayer that believers’ witness of life may grow in credibility. To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own, especially in the course of this Year.”
We are called be missionaries in a “new evangelization” of our world. We must intensify our witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, not only by our words, but by our actions with generosity and self-giving love. Our future, and the future of our children and our children’s children, depends upon us.
May we respond willingly to this call, with God’s help.
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