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Religious Liberty and Thanksgiving Print E-mail

December 1, 2010 |The Long Island Catholic Vol. 49, No. 32 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY

Bishop Murphy was invited by the leadership of the Islamic Center of Long Island to deliver the keynote at an interfaith gathering Nov. 28 to celebrate religious liberty in the spirit of Thanksgiving. The following are the reflections he shared with those gathered at the Center in Westbury.


Thank you for gathering us here in this beautiful Islamic Center so important for the life of Muslims and of us all who live on Long Island. I offer my thoughts this evening in the same context of Cardinal Francis George who writes of the “necessary conversation” on the part of dialogue between Christians and Muslims and others to constitute the foundation of our contribution to a greater global solidarity in behalf of religious freedom. (George, “The Difference God Makes,” 112f) As Catholic Bishop here, as a member of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on ecumenical and interfaith affairs and as a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue I pledge to you my renewed commitment to be a partner in dialogue, a brother in building a good society and in defending the rights of all and a friend at all times.

In 1948 a remarkable group of men and women, including Eleanor Roosevelt, met in Paris with a charge from the newly formed United Nations Organization to draw up a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On December 10 of that year the General Assembly of the UN adopted and promulgated the declaration which has been adopted and adhered to by almost every nation in the world. Article 18 reads, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public and private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” 

Some years ago in a meeting I had with President Fidel Castro, I stressed this to him, asking for these rights to be observed in Cuba. He gave me the usual totalitarian answer: “I agree so long as it does not interfere with the state.” More recently countries like China and certain groups in western countries have been arguing that these rights are culturally conditioned or historically limited. These positions, like that of Castro, must be resisted because ultimately they undermine the very possibility of human life and dignity.

Catholic social teaching, and in particular Pope John Paul II, taught that while the right to life is obviously the first and most important human right, the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion is “in a certain sense” the most fundamental and important right. That position is based on the tradition of natural moral reasoning available to every person of intelligence and good will. The importance of being free to worship God and to base one’s life on the Absolute, however that Absolute may be named, is so essential to human life and dignity that once that is compromised, then the whole structure of human rights and human dignity can be undermined and eventually will collapse. Regardless of one’s particular religious belief, or no belief, this statement is objectively and factually true.

Why do I say that? Think for a moment of the two “relativizing positions” I just mentioned. If the state can decide what “rights” a person may enjoy then we have no recourse from the power of a state that can for its own purposes justify their denial or rejection of any human right. This is what President Castro did in the name of his own power. Thus the state can manipulate the lives of their citizens as they see fit and as their power allows them. The Soviet system and the national security states of the last century are all too real examples. If rights are culturally conditioned then elites are free to define, re-define or even eliminate basic human rights. Two examples of that would be to claim abortion as a “right” or assisted suicide as a “good” for society. These are both false claims. However, only if there is an Infinite Absolute beyond the state or any human opinion which anyone who wishes has a right to recognize and worship, privately and publicly, alone or with others, do we have a point of reference outside the power of the state and free from the prejudice of elites, that serves as the right to protect all human rights and human dignity. Every other reality in our lives is man-made and humanly conditioned. To protect the human rights of all persons, believers or not, there must be a universal recognition of the right to religious freedom, namely that every person by virtue of being human has the right freely to worship the only reality that transcends manmade institutions and the individually or socially shaped realities that make up the worlds we inhabit.

In that sense, freedom of conscience and religion is the basis that guarantees all other rights because, once that has been accepted, then there is a standard against which the arbitrary use of power and influence can be measured, judged and, if need be, resisted.

Note something else. It is not enough to speak of a “freedom to worship” in an individual sense. That is the latest misinterpretation — and a somewhat disingenuous one — that currently is fashionable in American society. “If you wish to believe, that is your private right but just don’t try to use your quaint notions of God to speak in the public square.” Neither should you claim that something transcendent should influence public speech or human customs and laws. Such an approach, clearly at large in much of today’s media and entertainment industries — but not exclusively there — takes a fundamental right we have as human beings and reduces it to an “entitlement.” The oddity of this mindset is that it habitually takes what can at best be called “entitlements” and turns them into “rights.” This turns reality upside down. In so doing they undermine the notion that there is anything we can say that is factually true and objectively real about what constitutes human life and human flourishing.

Some might object that this sounds too sectarian. But it is not. It is the opposite of that. It is easily grasped by any person, believer or non-believer, because it is reflected in a universal human experience of incompleteness that only is overcome when we go beyond ourselves, when we seek to transcend our own limitations by a self transcendence that is open to one another and ultimately to the Infinite. Our hosts here today call That Absolute Infinite, Allah, the All Merciful, the Almighty. My Jewish friends speak of Adonai, Hashem, and we Christians of a God who is one as a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the cultural and religious traditions go on and on. But the fundamental reality is that we celebrate this evening the truth that religious freedom is a human right that belongs to us all as human beings and that is essential to protect all human life and the dignity of every human being. And for this we give thanks today for it is the best way to ensure the common good of this society and every society worthy of the name human.

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