WASHINGTON — Signaling the Vatican’s deepening concern with the religious-liberty fight in the United States, the Holy See’s representative to the United Nations drew a connection between violent threats to religious freedom in the developing world and the ascendance of an intolerant secularism in the West.
“While nobody would confuse the marginalization of religion with the actual killing of Christians in other parts of the world, it is through this marginalizing that violent persecution is born,” said Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikatt, quoting Archbishop Erwin Ender, former apostolic nuncio to Germany, in a speech at the International Conference on the Discrimination and Persecution Against Christians last November.
Archbishop Chullikatt, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, delivered the keynote speech at the Eighth Annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. He previously served as the apostolic nuncio to Iraq and Jordan and recalled the deadly bombing of a Catholic church in Baghdad that killed more than 50 people. With deep emotion, he asked the gathering of 1,100 Catholics at the breakfast to stand up and defend the rights of Christians abroad. He noted that Christians have experienced more persecution across the globe than any other religious group.
Religious-freedom groups report that Iraq’s Christian population has been cut in half since the 2003 U.S. invasion, with many believers fleeing wartime violence and increased threats from Islamic extremism. Archbishop Chullikatt expressed the Holy See’s fears that the 2011 Arab Spring, which has fueled political turmoil and sectarian hostilities, could result in a new surge of anti-Christian persecution. Experts point to the increased likelihood of a refugee crisis, particularly in Egypt, where Coptic Christians account for 10% of the population and Islamic groups are filling the political vacuum created by the overthrow of its longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
The Vatican diplomat’s remarks, delivered April 19 in Washington, D.C., sought to establish a connection between the struggles of Christians abroad and the emerging threat to religious liberty in a nation that has inspired the world to defend fundamental human rights. That message was also delivered by two other invited speakers at the annual event: Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, the superior general of the Sisters of Life.
Addressing a crowd composed of Church leaders and pro-life activists, priests and women religious and political leaders — including Rick Santorum, the former senator who has suspended his campaign to be the GOP presidential nominee — the speakers identified specific threats to religious liberty in the United States and called for courage, prayer, action and prudence in the “battle for the soul of America,” as Archbishop Chullikatt phrased it.
Carl Anderson noted that the nation’s Founding Fathers embraced the truth that the first freedom was given to man by God and was not bestowed by the state. The nation’s leaders understood that the American experiment in ordered liberty depended on a religiously based moral framework.
“Washington’s farewell address insisted that religion and morality are ‘indispensible supports of our political prosperity,’ warning that ‘reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can be retained without religion,’” stated Anderson.
“Adams asserted that ‘our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.’ ‘It is,’ he said, ‘wholly inadequate to the government of any other.’”
The transcendent origins of human rights were once broadly acknowledged, Anderson suggested. Now secularists and special interests reject this truth, threatening the free exercise of religious institutions, and, ultimately, the inalienable dignity of the human person.
“I venture to say that never in the lifetime of anyone present here has the religious liberty of the American people been as threatened as it is today,” stated Anderson.
Archbishop Chullikatt and Anderson both expressed the fear that a radical secularism has introduced a form of historical amnesia in which the religious roots of Western institutions and of groundbreaking social movements are ignored in text books, popular entertainment and political parlance.
Anderson reported that on the National Mall in the nation’s capital the memorial for civil-rights icon and Baptist minister Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered 14 passages of his writing — and not one of them was religious.
“Imagine how those in authority must have searched to come up with 14 quotes of Dr. King without one mention of the Almighty,” said Anderson, who referenced Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s remarks about “the ideological manipulation of history that occurred in Russia under Soviet communism.”
Solzhenitsyn described the rewriting of history books and airbrushing of official records as “a closing, a locking up, of the national heart, [and an] amputation of the national memory.”
In his speech to the Nobel Prize Committee, the award-winning Russian author and forced labor camp survivor asserted that a nation that “has no memory of its own self. It is deprived of its spiritual unity. And even though compatriots apparently speak the same language, they suddenly cease to understand one another.”
Anderson confirmed that the Knights of Columbus had been engaged in past battles for the “soul of America.”
“In 1954, the Knights of Columbus was instrumental in having Congress place the words ‘under God’ in our Pledge of Allegiance.
“Those words were placed in our pledge in part to mark a stark contrast between the ultimate source of our rights and the pretensions of the atheist-totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century.
“These pretensions were well summarized by Benito Mussolini in 1919, when he said: ‘Everything within the state; nothing outside the state; everything for the state.’”
In an interview with the Register, Anderson said the Knights of Columbus “are going to be working very closely with the bishops and assisting them in every way we can, defending religious liberty. This is the most important issue we confront as Catholics. Many of our members understand this.”
Too Much at Stake
While many religious believers might hesitate to engage in a contentious fight to uphold the First Amendment, the speakers at the breakfast asserted that there was too much at stake for the U.S. bishops to carry the full burden of the defense of religious liberty.
Speakers took aim at a number of present threats to the first freedom, including the federal contraception mandate approved by the Obama administration.
“The National Right to Life Committee makes a compelling case that the Obama administration’s ‘accommodation’ for the HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services abortion and contraception] mandate — if accepted — paves the way for mandated coverage of ‘abortion on demand,’” stated Anderson.
Without unified resistance, he predicted, church-affiliated institutions would be marginalized or radically transformed.
“The spirit of our age is profoundly secular. And secularism accepts religion — if it accepts it at all — only on its own terms.”
The speakers referenced iconic battles between church and state and between the forces of good and evil. They cited the persecution of religious believers in the former Soviet Union and the system of concentration camps that distinguished 20th-century totalitarianism. Americans were also reminded of the war against slavery conducted by the abolitionists and, subsequently, Martin Luther King.
The brutal record of history was recalled in an effort to inject a note of urgency, even for the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast crowd.
"The past century has demonstrated the perils which exist when this freedom is diminished or denied, when God is deemed to be of secondary importance and can thus be temporarily or permanently set aside in the name of interests erroneously considered more important," said Archbishop Chullikatt.
Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, the superior general of the Sisters of Life, cited a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to make her larger point.
“We face a summons to action in response to a global and national reality that we are reluctant to perceive: Christians as the object of open persecution,” said Mother Agnes. “Yet, with faith, we see the world and its events with a new, spiritual vision and recognize that in these days we are drawn up (even against our will) in the primordial battle between good and evil. Let our wills be stirred and our hearts strengthened by the words of the great Christian J.R.R. Tolkien:
“Hold your ground! ... A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of friendship, but it is not this day. … This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you, stand!”
While Mother Agnes drew on the stirring language of a literary classic, Carl Anderson pondered the warlike language of those who have embraced the federal contraception mandate.
“Last year, the Secretary of Health and Human Services told a NARAL luncheon, ‘We are in a war.’” He concluded: “We do not need a government that sees itself at ‘war’ with its own citizens.” And he called on his audience to heed the U.S. bishops’ call for prayer and to participate in a newly established time for intense prayer, “from the vigil of the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More to July 4.”
The breakfast closed with a prayer offered by the newly appointed leader of the Anglican-use ordinariate, Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson.
Msgr. Steenson thanked Pope Benedict XVI for paving the way for the new ordinariate. Further, he also reminded his audience that a brutal act of state power — the action of Henry VIII to sever the Catholic Church in England from Pope Clement VII — was now being addressed in an unexpected but promising way.
Then Msgr. Steenson closed the meeting with a prayer from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
“O mighty God … defend our liberties and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endow with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to thy law we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor. Click here to view EWTN's video of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.