Summary: Religious freedom is a fundamental human right that is not restricted to the confines of a church.
Thursday in Third Week of Easter 2016
Joy of the Gospel
Those of us who are blessed to be in the Catholic church for many decades tend to take for granted our sacramental realities, especially the Blessed Eucharist. I recall reading about a Muslim who, though totally without faith in the Incarnation, said that if he thought that God could be present under the form of the Sacred Host, he would be on his knees before it continually. In moments we will be taking into our bodies that reality that Jesus calls the “living bread that comes down from heaven.” This is the pledge of our eternal life.
I love the deacon stories in the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen’s story, of course, is very sobering. He was ordained to wait tables, but we find him preaching to the Jews of the Diaspora and getting stoned to death for his trouble. Phillip is easier for me to relate to. He was also ordained to wait tables, but, prompted by the Holy Spirit, does things like running along a desert road and ministering to this Ethiopian official. This precious passage shows us how the early disciples converted so many Jews and Jewish fellow-travelers. They simply appealed to the stories toward the end of Isaiah–the Suffering Servant songs. They were able to show that Jesus fulfilled every one of the prophesies of the OT, and to demonstrate how that fulfilled the plan of God and opened up the heavens for the Holy Spirit to justify us sacramentally and fill us with that Spirit that witnessed to Jesus and His Church. Only in Christ can any suffering make any sense, and this will be a message that resonates with every human being who has ever had to wake up on a Monday morning to a crying baby, a raging headache, a clogged toilet or a full week of hard work.
It reminds us that the whole purpose of the pope’s encyclical, The Joy of the Gospel, is evangelization, mission. The Church is sacramental. He writes: ‘Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God”,and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ”. But due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences. The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.
He then goes on to teach about religious freedom: Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. ‘This includes “the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public”. A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. The respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority or ignores the wealth of religious traditions. In the long run, this would feed resentment rather than tolerance and peace.
He continues, and what he writes sounds like he’s well aware of what is happening in the once-Christian West: ‘When considering the effect of religion on public life, one must distinguish the different ways in which it is practiced. Intellectuals and serious journalists frequently descend to crude and superficial generalizations in speaking of the shortcomings of religion, and often prove incapable of realizing that not all believers – or religious leaders – are the same. Some politicians take advantage of this confusion to justify acts of discrimination. At other times, contempt is shown for writings which reflect religious convictions, overlooking the fact that religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart. This contempt is due to the myopia of a certain rationalism. Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in a context of religious belief? These writings include principles which are profoundly humanistic and, albeit tinged with religious symbols and teachings, they have a certain value for reason.’ I would add, a cosmic and eternal value for reason.