top of page
  • John Thavis

Pope Francis’ somewhat different take on religious liberty

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Well, that was interesting.

At the official “religious freedom” event during his U.S. visit, Pope Francis never mentioned the U.S. bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaigns, nor their battles over alleged religious discrimination on Obamacare provisions and conscience protection issues.

The bishops have certainly made this a priority. Here was Archbishop William E. Lori last June asking the faithful to support their efforts:

“Religious institutions in the United States are in danger of losing their freedom to hire for mission and their freedom to defend the family…. Endangered is the freedom of church ministries to provide employee benefits and to provide adoptions and refugee services in accord with the church’s teaching on faith and morals. It is one thing for others to disagree with the church’s teaching but quite another to discriminate against the rights of believers to practice our faith, not just in word but in the way we conduct our daily life, ministry and business.”

Perhaps a detailed analysis of these matters was never in the cards for Pope Francis. At the White House the other day, he did offer generic backing for the bishops, encouraging the defense of religious freedom from “everything that would threaten or compromise it.” And he made a brief, symbolic stop at the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order that is suing over the Obamacare provisions on contraception coverage.

If the bishops were looking for something more explicit in Philadelphia, the pope went in a different and more philosophical direction: “Uniformity.”

It’s a word that’s popped up more than once during the pope’s U.S. visit. Clearly, the pope doesn’t like it. As he said at the 9/11 Memorial Friday, religious leaders should be “opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity.”

But what exactly is he talking about?

Today in Philadelphia we got some explanation. Citing the French Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau, the pope said the big threat to religious liberty today comes from “a uniformity that the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us.”

The pope then explained how this uniformity emerges in the modern age, going back to a concept he expressed in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sì.

“We live in a world subject to the ‘globalization of the technocratic paradigm,’ which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity,” he said.

To resist that movement, he said, religions have a duty to promote a healthy pluralism in which differences are respected and valued. The pope evidently sees such pluralism as the antidote to the push for uniformity.

“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others,” he said.

He noted that the Quakers who founded Philadelphia aimed to establish a colony that would be a “haven of religious freedom and tolerance.”

I doubt if all the pope’s deep-thinking points were picked up by the massive crowd that filled Independence Mall, a three-block area that is considered the cradle of American democracy.

They applauded when he spoke about the Declaration of Independence and its affirmation that all men and women are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect those rights. He spoke at a lecturn used by Abraham Lincoln when he gave the Gettysburg Address.

“Those ringing words continue to inspire us today, even as they have inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for the freedom to live in accordance with their dignity,” the pope said.

But he added that U.S. history also shows that these principles must constantly be re-affirmed and defended. As examples, he cited the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and “the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans.”

The event was billed as a “meeting for religious freedom with the Hispanic community and other immigrants,” and the Latin American pope returned to the theme of immigration at the end of his talk, delighting his audience when he told them: “Never be ashamed of your traditions.”

“Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation,” he said.

Recent Posts

See All



bottom of page