The primary reason for Pope Francis’s trip to Kazakhstan this week was to attend the VII Congress Of the Leaders Of World And Traditional Religions. During his address on Wednesday, September 14, the pope spoke forcefully about the principle of religious freedom, calling it “an essential condition for genuinely human and integral development.” He called for true religious freedom, defending each person’s right to witness for their beliefs, but without imposing it on others. He said, “Religious freedom is a basic, primary and inalienable right needing to be promoted everywhere, one that may not be restricted merely to freedom of worship. Each person has the right to render public testimony to his or her own creed, proposing it without ever imposing it. This is the correct method of preaching, as opposed to proselytism and indoctrination, from which all are called to step back.”
Francis offered four challenges to the religious leaders in attendance:
- The pandemic, between vulnerability and responsibility. The pope explained that the Covid-19 pandemic revealed our vulnerability to us and reminded us that none of us is completely self-sufficient. This means that we are called to take responsibility for each other and to respond to challenges together. Francis also called for religious leaders to be at the forefront of promoting this unity.
- The challenge of peace. Pope Francis noted that even though peace has long been at the center of interreligious dialogue, we are still facing a world plagued by war and hostility. He called upon his fellow religious leaders to take “a leap forward” in the promotion of peace. In what many have interpreted as a reference to Moscow’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who has openly supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he implored religious leaders to be champions of peace, saying, “May we never justify violence. May we never allow the sacred to be exploited by the profane. The sacred must never be a prop for power, nor power a prop for the sacred!”
- Fraternal acceptance. Invoking the evils of the throwaway culture (“Each day children, born and unborn, migrants and elderly persons, are cast aside, discarded”), Francis decried “the sacrilegious incense of indifference.” He called on those assembled to remind the world of the sacredness of every human life, and to make it personal, saying, “let us learn also to be ashamed: yes, to experience that healthy shame born of compassion for those who suffer, sympathy and concern for their condition and for their fate, which we realize that we too share. This is the path of compassion, which makes us better human beings and better believers. It is up to us, not only to affirm the inviolable dignity of each human being, but also to teach how to weep for others. “
- Care for our common home. Pope Francis decried the impact of climate change. He also spoke out against a “mindset of exploitation” that is leading, not only to the destruction of our natural environment, but is “to an eclipse of the respectful and religious vision of the world willed by the Creator.” This is why, Francis said, it is necessary “to encourage and promote the protection of life in every one of its forms.”
Yesterday, Pope Francis and the other religious leaders signed the “Declaration Of VII Congress Of the Leaders Of World And Traditional Religions.” It is not a long document and it is well worth reading. Following a preamble, the Declaration lists 35 points, including:
4. We are convinced that the unleashing of any military conflict, creating hotspots of tension and confrontation, causes chain reactions which impair international relations.
5. We believe that extremism, radicalism, terrorism and all other forms of violence and wars, whatever their motivations and goals, have nothing to do with authentic religion and must be rejected in the strongest possible terms.
6. We strongly urge national governments and authorized international organizations to provide comprehensive assistance to all religious groups and ethnic communities that have been subjected to infringement of rights and violence by extremists and terrorists and as a result of wars and military conflicts.
19. We proceed from the immutable fact that the Almighty created all people equal, regardless of their racial, religious, ethnic or other affiliation or social status, therefore respect for each other and mutual understanding underpin all religious teaching.
20. We call on political and public figures, journalists and bloggers, while recognizing their freedom of speech, to beware religious generalization and not to identify extremism and terrorism with any nation or religion, as well as not to use religions for political purposes.
21. We advocate increasing the role of education and religious formation, particularly among youth, in strengthening the respectful coexistence of religions and cultures and debunking dangerous pseudo-religious prejudices.
22. We pay special attention to the importance of strengthening the institution of the family.
23. We stand for the protection of the dignity and rights of women, the improvement of their social status as equal members in family and society, as well as encourage their inclusion in the peace processes in cultural and religious settings.
24. We note the inevitability of global digital development, as well as the importance of the role of religious and spiritual leaders in interacting with politicians in solving the problems of digital inequality.
25. While we respect the freedom of expression, we strive to develop a dialogue with the media and other institutions of society to clarify the significance of religious values for promoting religious knowledge, interreligious harmony and civil peace, as well as to develop general tolerance towards religions.
26. We appeal to all people of faith and goodwill to unite in this difficult time and contribute to ensuring security and harmony in our common home – planet Earth.
Naturally, Pope Francis and his predecessors have faced criticism since the Second Vatican Council’s promotion of religious freedom as a human right and matter of human dignity. As we mentioned yesterday, Astana Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider had harsh words for the pope and his message of peace and fraternity with leaders of other faiths. Catholic News Service (CNS) reported that he said the meeting was “’dangerous’ because it could ‘undermine the uniqueness and absoluteness of Jesus Christ as savior and of our mission to preach to all nations, to all religions, Jesus Christ.’”
In the conclusion of the CNS article, however, was a reminder of the actual position of the Church: “the Catholic Church has professed its respect for other religions and for the sincere efforts of other believers to seek God, although it continues to profess its belief that the fullness of truth and the surest path to salvation is in Christianity. The Catholic Church supports and engages in interreligious dialogue to promote peace, mutual respect and religious freedom.”
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.