Upon receiving a medal from a group dedicated to religious freedom, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said that God the Creator is the foundation to beliefs about the sanctity and “infinite value” of human life. He also warned that American religious liberty will be lost if it is not defended and if an increasing disdain for faith and religious believers is underestimated.
The archbishop delivered his remarks on Thursday in New York City after being awarded the Becket Fund’s Canterbury Medal, which is given to persons who “most resolutely refused to render to Caesar that which is God's.”
Past Canterbury Medalists include Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, Gov. and Mrs. Mitt Romney, financiers Foster Friess and Ted Forstmann, and former U.S. Ambassadors to the Vatican James R. Nicholson and Mary Ann Glendon.
Beginning his remarks about the importance of religious freedom, the archbishop said that the United States is “a nation that only really makes sense in a religion-friendly context.”
He said the nation’s Founders had “a tragic sense of history” and “few illusions about human perfectibility” because of the “world of faith” that shaped their experience.
“The Founders certainly had hope in their ability to build a ‘new order of things’ -- but only under the judgment of a Creator. In other words, they had a sane kind of hope; the biblical kind that’s grounded in realism, because they also believed in sin,” the archbishop remarked.
Their grasp of the nobility and weaknesses of human nature meant that American ideals require “a certain kind of citizen to make them work.” Archbishop Chaput then cited a John Adams quotation about the U.S. Constitution being made “only for a moral and religious people” and being “wholly inadequate” for any other.
The archbishop said “the bedrock” of our common moral heritage was the First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God; you will not have foreign gods before me.”
“All of our Western beliefs about the sanctity of life, human dignity and human rights ultimately depend on a Creator who guarantees them. In other words, we have infinite value because God made us. No human being or political authority can revoke that infinite value. Only God is God.”
Any other pretention to answering human suffering and hope is “finally an impostor and a road away from God’s light.”
Archbishop Chaput said this view of the value of human life was in direct contrast to a contemporary American spirit in which science can “comfortably” coexist alongside “superstition or barbarism.” As the Western moral consensus weakened alongside the progress of science, people did not become more ethically mature.
“The 20th century was the bloodiest in history, and today the occult is flourishing right alongside our computers and Blackberries,” he said.
“Knowledge is merely knowledge. Power is merely power. Nothing inherent to knowledge or power guarantees that it will translate into wisdom or justice or mercy.”
He quoted a passage from President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech about restoring science to “its rightful place,” contrasting this with a passage from the 2008 Vatican document Dignitas Personae:
“The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death. This fundamental principle expresses a great ‘yes’ to human life, and must be at the center of ethical reflections on biomedical research, which has an ever greater importance in today’s world.”
Archbishop Chaput said that the rightful place of science is “in the service of human dignity, and under the judgment of God’s justice.”
“Science can never stand outside or above moral judgment. And people of faith can never be neutral or silent about its uses. Otherwise, sooner or later -- but unavoidably – human beings, their rights and their dignity pay the price.”
America cannot survive without being predisposed and welcoming to religious faith, the archbishop insisted.
“[W]e were founded as a religious people, but with public institutions that avoid religious tests. American public life depends for its life on Jews and Protestants and Latter Day Saints and Catholics and all religious believers vigorously advancing their convictions in public debate. We need to do that peacefully and respectfully, but we need to do it -- without evasions or apologies or alibis. Otherwise we’re stealing the most precious things we have – our religious faith and our moral character – from the struggle for the common good. And the God who loves us will nonetheless hold us accountable for that cowardice.”
Noting that freedom of religion is “woven” into foundational U.S. documents and “hardwired” into Americans’ assumptions, the archbishop explained he had not truly understood this religious freedom until he served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. There, he said, he witnessed “the systematic abuse of religious believers” in foreign countries.
“Some of that same contempt for religious faith and disdain for serious religious believers is now part of our own national dialogue. And we underestimate it at our own great cost,” he warned.
While Americans take religious freedom seriously, the archbishop said “times change, and nations change.”
“The freedom of faith we all enjoy in this country needs to be earned and defended by all of us, again and again, or we’ll lose it… Freedom needs to be purchased with a constant witness of courage, intelligence and action.”
The archbishop closed by saying the Canterbury Award matters because the Becket Fund and its work for religious liberty matter “for every American religious believer and for all our citizens, whether they know it or not.”