WASHINGTON (CNS) – Religious liberty was topic A at the eighth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, held April 19 at a Washington hotel.
"Never in the lifetime of anyone present here has the religious liberty of the American people been as threatened as it is today," warned Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, in remarks to the estimated 800 people in attendance.
"We must remind our fellow Americans, and especially those who exercise power, that religious liberty – the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment – has been essential to the founding, development and improvement of the American republic."
Anderson said, "Today we find a new hostility to the role of religious institutions in American life at a time when government is expanding its reach in extraordinary ways. And it is not only because of the Obama administration's HHS contraception mandate."
Besides the mandate requiring that most health plans cover the cost of contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can induce abortion, Anderson pointed to the Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC case, a court challenge to a Lutheran school's firing of a teacher. The attempt to more narrowly define who is a religious employee was unanimously rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
He also noted the revocation of a federal human trafficking grant awarded to the U.S. bishops' Department of Migration and Refugee Services because MRS would not offer its clients the "full range of reproductive services," including abortion.
"A government willing to affect the faith and mission of the church is a government willing to change the identity of the church," Anderson declared.
"During his (2008) visit to Washington, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that 'Christians are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age,'" he said. "The spirit of our age is profoundly secular. And secularism accepts religion -- if it accepts it at all -- only on its own terms. Under this view, religion is subordinated to the political interests of the secular state. And it is precisely this subordination of religion to the state that the First Amendment seeks to prevent."
Anderson recalled when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed Congress in December 1941, with England being subjected to Nazi bombing runs and the United States having just suffered the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
"In that worst of times, he scorned the enemies of freedom and defiantly asked, 'What kind of people do they think we are!' Today, with the same defiance, we can declare, 'What kind of Catholics do they think we are!'" Anderson said to applause. "Do they really expect us to go gently into that dark night they are preparing for religious liberty in America? Do they know that people who believe in 'one holy catholic and apostolic church' can never agree to compromise our church by entangling it in intrinsically evil acts?"
While Anderson stuck to domestic issues, threats to religious liberty around the world was the subject of the keynote address by Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, apostolic nuncio at the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
Archbishop Chullikatt noted repeatedly how Catholics and Christians are threatened on a regular basis for professing or exercising their faith. The former papal nuncio to Iraq, he expressed sadness over the Oct. 31, 2010, massacre at a church in Baghdad, where 52 people were murdered, including two priests he knew personally.
"Religious liberty is the first of human rights," Archbishop Chullikatt said. He quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who in his 2011 World Day of Peace message, said, "A freedom that is hostile or indifferent to God is self-negating."
"What is at stake here," Archbishop Chullikatt said, "is the future of humanity itself." He added freedom of religion is "not only a moral but also a civil right."
Such freedom, the archbishop said, "still awaits effective implementation in many countries." He cited statistics from a U.N. office that monitors discrimination and intolerance to human rights, which indicated that 70 percent of the world's people live in countries with a high degree of restriction on human rights, with 51 percent of the population lives in nations where the government has used force to keep citizens from exercising those rights.
Archbishop Chullikatt cited laws that place an outright ban on worship by Catholics in nations where they are a minority religion, as well as blasphemy laws, conversion laws and statutes that forbid the wearing of garments that express one's faith.
The Arab Spring that took hold in many parts of the Muslim world last year has created situations for Christians that "may actually see things get worse rather than improve," he said.