Pope Benedict XVI warned today of a “grave threat” to religious liberty in the United States that requires American Catholics to respond with intelligence and courage.

“It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres,” he said Jan. 19 in an address to a group of American bishops visiting the Vatican.

The Pope said he was particularly concerned with “certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”

Pope Benedict’s address was delivered to the bishops from the Mid-Atlantic states region, which includes the Archdioceses of Washington and Baltimore. They are in Rome this week on their regular “ad limina” visit to discuss the health of the U.S. Church with the Pope and Vatican officials. The two bishops from the Archdiocese for the U.S. Military Services are also participating in the meetings.

Pope Benedict said that over the past few days many of the bishops have expressed concern over attempts in the U.S. to “deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.”

Meanwhile, other bishops raised the “worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship” without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

At present, the Obama administration is considering imposing a contraception and sterilization mandate that would require all insurance companies to provide those services free of charge. The regulation has a religious exemption clause, but it provides very few exceptions for Church organizations.

Some states are also pushing Catholic adoption agencies out of business or severely limiting their work because they refuse to compromise the Church’s beliefs on same-sex “marriage.”

Pope Benedict said these issues highlight the need for an “engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture.” The American laity must have the “courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate,” he said.

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The preparation of such “committed lay leaders,” he told the bishops, should be the “primary task of the Church in your country.”

He noted that his visit to the United States in 2008 afforded him an opportunity to reflect on America’s historical experience of religious freedom, “specifically the relationship between religion and culture.”

“At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not,” he said, “is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing.”

In the United States this consensus is “enshrined in your nation’s founding documents,” which are grounded in a worldview shaped by faith and a commitment to ethical principles, he observed.

Today, however, that consensus has been eroded “in the face of powerful new cultural currents” which are “not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity.”

Despite such hostility, American Catholics are still called to proclaim “a Gospel which not only proposes unchanging moral truths but proposes them precisely as the key to human happiness and social prospering,” Pope Benedict stated.

He also responded to those who attempt to restrict Christians’ voice in the public square or argue that their contribution should be ignored because of “majority rule.” This is a threat not just to Christianity but “to humanity itself and to the deepest truth about our being and ultimate vocation, our relationship to God.”

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Pope Benedict said that the Catholic Church’s tradition of respect for both faith and reason means that it can play a critical role in opposing current trends which are based on “extreme individualism” and promote “notions of freedom detached from moral truth.”

The pontiff also touched on what he called the “legitimate” idea of separation of Church and State. This does not mean, however, that the Church must be silent on certain issues or that the state can choose to ignore “the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.”

Pope Benedict said he appreciated the efforts of the U.S. bishops to maintain contacts with Catholics involved in political life and help them “understand their personal responsibility to offer public witness to their faith.”

This is especially true when it comes to key ethical issues of today, which he identified as “the respect for God’s gift of life, the protection of human dignity and the promotion of authentic human rights.”

He concluded on an optimistic note by observing the rise of “a new generation of Catholics” in the United States whose “experience and convictions will have a decisive role in renewing the Church’s presence and witness in American society.”

The hope promised by this younger generation should be reason enough “to renew our efforts to mobilize the intellectual and moral resources of the entire Catholic community in the service of the evangelization of American culture and the building of the civilization of love.”

To read Pope Benedict's full address, please visit: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/document.php?n=1059