This talk was delivered at the Path to Peace Foundation seminar “Catholic Students and the Common Good: Building a Better World” in New York on May 22, 2007.
I’d like to begin with a couple of disclaimers.
For the past four years, I’ve had the privilege of serving on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Congress established the Commission in 1998 to monitor religious freedom around the world as a basic human right. Service on this Commission has been an extraordinary experience. But I’m not here today representing the commission, or the Holy See, or the American bishops, or the Vatican’s Mission to the United Nations. I hope I’ll have something interesting to say, and I look forward
to answering your questions. But my comments are purely my own, as a private Catholic citizen just like you.
I have two tasks today. I want to talk about religious tolerance and intolerance. And I also want to talk about you. As college students, you’re already young adults. In a few years you’ll have jobs and families. Some of you will be doctors, teachers, or business leaders. Some of you will go into politics or the military. Many of you will have children. And all of you will be responsible.
What I mean by “responsible” is this. St. Paul tells us: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 14:20). You’re about to inherit the most powerful nation in history. Each of you has the talent, goodwill, and energy to use that power well.
But the problem is that much of American culture right now is built on an adolescent fiction. The fiction is that life is all about you as an individual—your ideas, your appetites, and your needs. Believe me: It isn’t. The main interest big companies have in your wants and mine is how to turn them into a profit. Part of being an adult is the ability to separate marketing from reality; hype from fact. The fact is, the world is a big and complicated place. It doesn’t care about your appetites. It has too many of its own
needs, and it won’t leave you alone.
God made you for a purpose. The world needs the gifts he gave you. Adulthood brings power. Power brings responsibility. And the meaning of your life will hinge on a simple, basic choice. Will you engage the world with your heart and brains and faith, and work to make it a better place—not just for yourself and the people you love but also for people you don’t even know whose survival depends on your service to the common good? Or will you wrap yourself in a blanket of noise and toys and consumer junk, and stay a child?
God gave you a free will. How you use that gift is your choice—but it’s a choice you won’t be able to avoid. And that choice has consequences.
I want you to remember the women and men I mention today. Remember them because they come from our own time, and they were your age when they made their own choices.
Edith Stein was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany in 1891. She lost her faith in God early in her life. But she had brilliant mind and a hunger for the deeper questions about the world. So she became a student of, and then an assistant to, the philosopher Edmund Husserl. By the time she was thirty, Stein was one of the most promising young intellectuals in Europe.
On a summer evening in 1921, she picked up a copy of St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. She read it without stopping through the night. Later she wrote, “When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth.” Six months later she was baptized into Christ as a Catholic. She tried to enter religious life almost immediately, but her spiritual directors disagreed. They asked her to stay in the secular world and use her intellect and teaching skills to bring others to Jesus Christ.
She did that until 1933, when the Third Reich barred anyone of Jewish origin from teaching. In 1934, she joined the Carmelite order, where she continued her research and scholarship. In 1939, as anti- Semitism became even more vicious in Germany, she wrote, “I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death . . . so that the Lord will be accepted by His people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world.”
In August 1942, the Gestapo arrested Stein and many other Jewish Catholics as a reprisal against Catholic bishops who had publicly condemned Nazi racism. She was quickly shipped to Auschwitz, where she was gassed almost immediately. In October 1998, Pope John Paul II canonized her as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a confessor and martyr of the Catholic faith.
Stein chose to engage the world with her intellect, through persuasion and reason, and with her heart through prayer. Others made a similar choice using different skills. The young Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer organized a movement called the Confessing Church among German Protestants to resist Adolph Hitler. He had several chances to save himself by studying and teaching in America. But he returned to Germany to actively work against the Nazi regime. He was caught and eventually hanged
just weeks before the end of the war.
He wasn’t alone. Sophie and Hans Scholl—along with Christopher Probst and many other young German university students—were murdered by the Third Reich for their nonviolent resistance work with the White Rose movement in 1943. The Scholls and Probst all came from active Christian backgrounds. Probst converted to the Catholic faith shortly before he was executed.
I have one final example. In Russia at the end of World War II, a young Soviet captain made the mistake of criticizing Josef Stalin in a private letter in 1945. For that crime he spent the next eight years in prison camps and three more years in exile. But his experience turned out to be a catastrophe for the regime. Out of his own suffering and the suffering of thousands of other victims he saw in the gulag, Alexander Solzhenitsyn developed into one of the great writers of the twentieth century, and one of the great modern champions of human freedom.
What leaves the deepest impression about Solzhenitsyn’s work is his Christian spirit. He went into the gulag as an atheist. He was a Christian when he came out. What he saw in the Soviet prison camps, including the persecution and murder of tens of thousands of religious believers, changed him permanently.
Here’s my point. People who take the question of human truth, freedom and meaning seriously will never remain silent about it. They can’t. They’ll always act on what they believe, even at the cost of their reputations and lives. That’s the way it should be. Religious faith is always personal, but it’s never private. It always has social consequences, or it isn’t real. And this is why any definition of “tolerance” that tries to turn religious faith into a private idiosyncrasy, or a set of personal opinions that we can have at home but that we need to be quiet about in public, is doomed to fail.
The mentality of suspicion toward religion is becoming its own form of intolerance. I have seen a kind of secular intolerance develop in our own country over the past two decades. The modern secular view of the world assumes that religion is superstitious and false; that it creates division and conflict; and that real freedom can only be ensured by keeping God out of the public square.
But if we remove God from public discourse, we also remove the only authority higher than political authority, and the only authority that guarantees the sanctity of the individual. If the twentieth century taught us anything, it’s that modern states tend to eat their own people, and the only thing stopping this is a resistance based in the human spirit but anchored in a higher authority—which almost always means religious witness.
You know, there’s a reason why “spirituality” is so popular in the United States today and religion is so criticized. Private spirituality can be quite satisfying. But it can also become a designer experience. In fact, the word spirituality can mean just about anything a person wants it to mean. It’s private, it’s personal, and, ultimately, it doesn’t place any more demands on the individual than what he or she wants.
Religion is a very different creature. The word religion comes from the Latin word religare—to bind. Religious believers bind themselves to a set of beliefs. They submit themselves to a community of faith with shared convictions and hopes. A community of believers has a common history. It also has a shared purpose and future that are much bigger than any political authority. And that has implications. Individuals pose no threat to any state. They can be lied to, bullied, arrested, or killed. But communities of faith do pose a threat. Religious witness does have power, and communities of faith are much
harder to silence or kill.
This is why active religious faith has always been so distrusted and feared by every one of the big modern ideologies—whether it’s Marxism, or fascism, or the cult of selfishness and comfortable atheism that we see in Europe and the United States today. What we believe about God shapes what we believe about the human person. And what we believe about the human person has consequences—social, economic, and political consequences.
Of course, the issue of religious tolerance isn’t simply a question of religion’s relationship with the state. It can also be a matter of different religious communities competing for the same souls in the same space. That creates a different set of problems. At their best, religious believers will understand that they have an obligation to treat people of other faiths, or no faith, with justice and charity. The same God created both the faithful and unbelievers, and the same God guarantees the rights and dignity of both. But at their worst, believers have seen unbelievers or different believers as enemies who need to be punished.
Human history has a great many examples of religious violence and prejudice. The record includes the Christian persecution of the Jews, the Muslim conquest of Christians, wars between Protestants and Catholics, and violence between Hindus and Muslims. History has plenty of sin and guilt to go around. A lot of very different people from very different religions have used God as an alibi for doing evil things. That kind of wickedness in a pious disguise rightly drives people away from religion—but it doesn’t debunk God. And it doesn’t disprove religion. It reveals the hatred and weakness in each of us, and it reveals our unwillingness to love. But understanding our human sinfulness should drive us to live our faith more deeply and truly—not to abandon our faith.
Actually, I think the word tolerance itself is a kind of problem. Tolerance comes from the Latin words tolerare, which means to bear or sustain, and tollere, which means to lift up. It implies bearing other people and their beliefs the way we bear a burden or a really nasty migraine headache. It’s a negative. And it’s not a Christian virtue.
As Catholics we have a duty to treat all people, regardless of their beliefs, with justice, charity, mercy, prudence, patience, and understanding. We’re not asked to “tolerate” them but to love them, which is a much more demanding task. Obviously, tolerance is an important democratic working principle. Most of the time, it’s a good and vital thing. But tolerating lies about the nature of the human person is a sin. Tolerating grave evil in a society is an equally grave evil. And using “tolerance” as an excuse for not living and witnessing Jesus Christ in our private lives and in our public actions is not an act of civility. It’s a form of cowardice.
Remember that courage is also a true Christian virtue. The Epistle of James tells us to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only” (1:22). James also says that “faith without works is dead” (2:20). And Jesus himself tells us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19). Jesus didn’t say, “unless you’re in college” or “unless you’re an American.” He said, “make disciples of all nations,” and he was talking to you and me. Right now, in our time.
How can this command from Christ himself fit in with ideas like interreligious dialogue and interfaith peace? Catholics who really study, understand, and love their faith believe the following things.
First, every human person has an inviolable dignity and inalienable rights as a child of God made in his image. No other person or outside power has the authority to violate those rights.
Second, we should sincerely respect every element of truth and beauty embodied in other religious communities. We have an obvious family bond with other Christians and a special reverence for the Jewish people as our elder brothers in the faith. We should also seek to build mutual respect with Muslims, who claim their own descent from Abraham. But our goodwill should extend to every sincere expression of humanity’s search for God, including especially the great religious traditions of the East, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Third—and we should never, ever try to diminish this fact—while all religions have some elements of truth, all religions are not equal. Only Jesus Christ is Lord. Only Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one is saved except through him—even if other people don’t know or accept him by name. No other way to the Father exists, except through Jesus Christ.
Fourth, only the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ in its fullness, and therefore the Catholic Church teaches with his authority.
Fifth, the Church has the duty to preach Jesus Christ and propose the truth of God’s revelation. But she can’t coerce anyone to believe the truth without violating the rights of the individual person and betraying the message of the gospel. In other words, every person is free to accept or reject the message of salvation.
Sixth and finally, every person has a right to freedom of conscience and the serious duty to follow his or her conscience. But conscience never develops in a vacuum. Conscience is never just an exercise of personal opinion or preference. Every person has the obligation to form his or her conscience in the light of God’s truth. And for all men and women, in every age and every culture, the truth about God and the human person is taught in a complete way only by the Catholic faith.
The choices we make about our religious beliefs matter not just in this world but also in the next. God created us for heaven, but we arrive there by living the witness of his love right here and now. We have a duty to pursue the truth, to live it and preach it to others. And that means we need to respect the beliefs and greatness of other people and work with them to build a more humane world in every legitimate way we can. But we can never allow that to stop us from witnessing and advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ with every breath we take. The only guarantee of real human freedom is God, and the
truest path to God is through the cross of Jesus Christ.
Earlier I mentioned the names of Edith Stein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the members of the White Rose, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It can be tempting to think of them as heroes who lived in an extreme time, a different time, and therefore remote from our experience. But today is your time, and it isn’t so very different.
When I visited China two years ago for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, two things struck me. The first was the incredible growth of the Christian faith in that country. And the second was the remarkably skillful and subtle persecution of religion carried out by the authorities. The world can be a very difficult place for people who truly seek the face of God. A country like North Korea has nearly wiped religious believers out of the population. It’s a gangster state without even a pretense of freedom and the rule of law. In Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Bangladesh, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia,
Christians have faced discrimination and persecution for centuries, and it hasn’t stopped. It’s happening right now, today, while I’m speaking.
In Europe, Pope Benedict XVI has warned of a growing culture of self-apostasy and cynicism that robs “human nature [of] its inherent value-oriented and idealistic dimensions” and denies Christians “the right to intervene in public debates.”
And even in the United States, where we take the Christian and Enlightenment roots of our freedoms for granted, the climate is changing. America is a country that could not have been imagined by her founders without an understanding of God and man shaped deeply by the Christian faith.
But if you read the New York Times and other major newspapers, and listen to some of our academic, scientific, or political leaders, you’d never know that. And if you take a stroll through your local video store later today, you’ll find literally dozens of movies that cast religious believers in general—and Catholics in particular—as fools or hypocrites or worse.
Now, if this kind of cheap, pop-culture bigotry doesn’t make you want to defend and push back for your faith, maybe you need to take an honest look at how Catholic you really want to be. This isn’t a time for tepid or half-hearted believers. If you claim to be Catholic, if you claim to be a person of religious faith, then you need to live it all the way.
Religious intolerance is a kind of blasphemy because it shows contempt for a person’s deepest search for meaning. And sooner or later, for most people, that search leads to God. The right to worship God, and the right to practice, preach, and teach what we believe without harassment—these rights are fundamental to the human person. They’re part of the foundation of human dignity. We can never protect those rights by kicking God out of our public institutions, or banning him from our civic vocabulary.
Democracy depends on the free, respectful, and nonviolent competition of ideas, and even God has a right—in fact he has the primary right—to be heard in that discussion.
If you want to serve the common good and build a better future, you’ll never do it by hiding your faith in the closet. You’ll never do it by being Catholic in private and something else in public. History is made by people with convictions, and the courage and passion to live those convictions. The path to interfaith peace and religious understanding demands that we live our faith more deeply and authentically, not less.
The more truly we love the Church and live our Catholic faith with joy, charity, justice, mercy—and the courage to demand that other people, in other religious traditions, should do the same—then the more the God of love will become present in our midst. And he alone is the real path to peace.
Printed with permission from the Archdiocese of Denver.