The Pope spent several days in Cuba, assuring the Cuban people of God’s love for them (which must seem hard to discern sometimes on the Isle of Hopelessness). The Castro regime, with its characteristically fierce intolerance and aggression, succeeded in keeping him away from the brave Catholic dissidents who dare to propose that even Cubans ought to have one or two of the human rights the rest of the world takes for granted. While there, the Holy Father made a loving pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Cobre, where he said he felt “as a child who looks forward to arriving at his mother’s house.”
Here in Miami we also have a Shrine to Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre. Go there any day and sit in the back. You will see little groups of people, obviously recently arrived from Cuba, coming to pay their respects to Our Lady. They bring armfuls of flowers and fall to their knees in front of the statue, eyes brimming with tears. They’ve come to thank her for delivering them to the land of freedom.
Their new home is a country like no other in history. It was formed not along ethnic, racial or geographic lines but on a powerful idea: the idea that government exists, in George Washington’s words, to protect the “persons and consciences of men from oppression.”
A revolutionary concept, new in the annals of human history. Always before, government was understood to confer rights, not to defend them. That’s how it is today in Cuba and in many other wretched countries, where governments oppress their citizens by limiting their rights of association, movement and speech and oppress their consciences by limiting their religious liberty.
Religion, after all, is man’s elaborate and worthy attempt to answer the questions that haunt us: Why am I here? How should I live?
Man is distinguished, spectacularly, from all the other animals by his ability to come to conclusions and form definite convictions. Chesterton said that as man “piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is becoming more and more human.”
Americans understand, deep in their bones, the glory of this ability and the sacredness of each man’s quest to live life in accordance with his beliefs. Prisoners of conscience all over the world, and those who are afraid to wear a cross at their throat or attend a church service openly, look to America as an example and a beacon of hope.
Unfortunately, freedom of conscience is under attack in the United States. Religious people who hold on to classic and time-tested ideals of marriage, family and gender are finding themselves marginalized and discriminated against. Catholic adoption agencies closed for not placing children with same-sex couples, orders of nuns forced to underwrite abortive contraceptives, CEOs and humble fire chiefs drummed out of work for supporting classic marriage and faithful Christians unable to express and live out their beliefs in the public square — all of these are dangerous symptoms of the new un-American oppression.
Next to the horrific fate of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East, the decadeslong suppression of the Church in Cuba and the worsening persecution of Christians in China, our gradual loss of religious liberty might seem inconsequential. But when Pope Francis speaks to President Obama and to Congress, he must remember that a country like ours is an indispensable example to the rest of the world. Losing a little ground here may translate into catastrophic losses in more savage parts of the world.
Perhaps he might remind Mr. Obama of what George Washington wrote to the Quakers in 1789: “the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness.”
It is that delicacy and tenderness that should always grace our country and inspire the rest of the world.
• Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy adviser for The Catholic Association.