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Dolan: Religious freedom is a human right and ‘essential’ to human dignity


SOUTH BEND, Ind. (CNS) — The University of Notre Dame observed the conclusion of Religious Freedom Week in the U.S. with a Religious Liberty Summit June 28-29 that invited ecumenical leaders and scholars from around the nation to discuss the various challenges to religious liberty.

Religious Freedom Week is observed June 22 to June 29 each year. The annual observance, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, always begins on the feast of two English martyrs who fought religious persecution, SS. Thomas More and John Fisher, and ends with the feast of two apostles martyred in Rome, SS. Peter and Paul.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, set the tone for the Notre Dame conference in his keynote address, observing that religious freedom is a human right, “essential to the dignity of the human person and the flourishing of all that is noble in us.”

He noted that defending religious freedom used to be “a nonconfrontational no-brainer,” as American as “mom, apple pie, the flag and Knute Rockne.” 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.”

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, during the Religious Liberty Summit at the University of Notre Dame Law School. (CNS photo/Peter Ringenberg, courtesy University of Notre Dame)

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 indicated no disagreements with Cardinal Dolan’s assessment, and in fact stressed the necessity for all people of faith to work together to defend and promote religious liberty in this country and abroad.

Panels included “Overcoming Polarization of Religious Liberty,” “International Threats to Religious Liberty,” and “Religious Liberty and the Press.”


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