Experts from around the world gathered in Rome Tuesday to explore the complex relationship between religious liberty and economic freedom.
The conference was held by the Acton Institute on the theme: “Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives from East and West”. The seminar was the first in a five-part series “One and Indivisible?: The Relationship Between Religious and Economic Freedom.”
One of its central themes was that the faithful are living in a time referred to as a “global war on Christianity” – a time of increasing difficulty for Catholics and Christians to practice their faith worldwide. Citizens are denied rights to exercise political, civil, and economic freedoms, if they want to be a practicing Christian.
Experts discussed the challenges regarding the state’s role in fostering and protecting religious liberty and minority rights, and noted how, as economic freedom expands, both opportunities and difficulties can be created for Christians.
Speakers included Father Martin Rhonheimer, professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome; Archbishop Maroun Lahham, auxiliary bishop and vicar of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem for Jordan; Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong; and Dr. Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute in Rome.
Prof. Rhonheimer began by shedding light on the situation in the West. He examined how the Catholic view of religious liberty prevents the state from total exercise of power. “Catholics should not be advocates of a social justice that makes citizens more and more dependent on social welfare [but] should, first of all, be defenders of freedom,” he said. “It is not states or governments that are the sources of wealth and prosperity, but creativity and inventiveness,” he added, noting this is true also for nonprofits and the charities.
Turning to China, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, an longtime advocate of religious freedom in China, discussed the so-called “Chinese miracle,” referring to economic success, but contested it’s “not a miracle” because “everything is under totalitarian control” and is produced by cheap labor.
Although he said Pope Benedict “could not have done more for the Church of China,” he noted threats and manipulation by the government make it nearly impossible for the Chinese to have religious freedom.
Discussing what Catholic social teaching is and is not, and how social welfare policies can have an impact on religious activities, Dr. Gregg stated that western governments, including the US, believe in less economic freedom in return for more economic security, which he said “some believe is realized by welfare states.” He went on to discuss why many critique this.
He said sometimes when Catholic organizations become supported by the state, they can risk “losing their ability to act,” because they are “subsumed” and “sucked into secular ways of thinking.”
ZENIT asked Dr. Gregg what Catholic organizations, which receive financial support, can do in order to not compromise their Catholic identity. He underlined the importance of De Caritate Ministranda, “On the Service of Charity” – a 2012 document Benedict wrote upon the recommendation of Cardinal Robert Sarah who heads the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican’s main oversight agency for charitable activities.
The document, Gregg said, made it “very clear that if Catholic charitable organizations accept funding, whether it be private or government, and it starts to cause the organization to compromise its identity, mission, ability to employ who it wants to employ, its ability to do what it wants to do in accordance with Church teaching, then bishops have the responsibility to stop Catholic organizations from accepting [these funds].”
“It’s well worth reading,” Gregg said, as “it is forcing Catholic organizations to ask themselves some very hard questions, such as: ‘Who is our master?'”
Describing the conference’s impact, the director of the Acton Institute, Kishore Jayabalan, told ZENIT: “One of the great things about a series like this is it’s quite international in scope, so you get perspectives from China, the Middle East, Western Europe that are quite different. It makes you realize that the situation facing Christians and other religious believers is not the same everywhere. Different threats are facing different believers and some are more serious than others.”
“It is a real challenge for the Church to think about this globally,” he added. “It is not just a matter of saying persecution is ‘bad’. We know that, but rather what is the best way to promote economic freedom in a way that promotes religious freedom. That is what we’re trying to do with this whole series.”
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