Earlier this month, members of Philadelphia’s Congregations of Ner Zedek found swastikas spray-painted on their synagogue. It was the second act of vandalism against their community this year. Americans have a natural repugnance for this kind of religious and ethnic bigotry, especially in the wake of the Holocaust. For Christians, whose own faith makes no sense if severed from its Jewish roots, anti-Semitism is a uniquely ugly sin.
Thus, while American Jews have often faced prejudice, the Jewish community has generally thrived in Philadelphia and the United States. And Jews have played a vital role, since the founding, in the development of the country we share.
I mention this because we Americans too easily take our habits of religious coexistence, cooperation and freedom for granted. And we shouldn’t. A recent Wall Street Journal commentary — “Do Jews Have a Future in Europe?” — noted that:
“The reality is that Europe’s Jews face almost daily attacks. In France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community of about 650,000, the situation is particularly severe, with 170 anti-Semitic acts reported by the Paris-based Jewish Community Protection Service and the French Ministry of the Interior in the first trimester of 2014. According to the French League of Human Rights, nearly 50 percent of racist acts in France are anti-Semitic, though Jews are 1 percent of the population.”
In countries where just 70 years ago Jews were murdered by the millions, hatred of Jews is strong again from the far right, the anti-Israeli left and extremist elements of the Muslim immigrant community. Pope Francis had warm relations with the Argentine Jewish community as archbishop of Buenos Aires. He’s spoken out forcefully against anti-Semitism. He’s had especially harsh words for the hypocrisy of anyone who claims to be a Christian but refuses to see Jews as brothers. But the “old” European anti-Semitism — rooted partly in Christian supersessionist theology — has been replaced by an equally toxic mix of racism, Holocaust denial, political bigotry and radical Islam.
Pope Francis has also repeatedly warned that anti-Semitism is not the only murderous form of modern bigotry. He noted that Christians are now the most widely and brutally persecuted religious community in the world, especially in Asia and Africa, but with growing hostility toward the Christian faith in Europe and North America as well. He described today’s attacks on Christians as exceeding anything in the violence of the Church’s first centuries, with more martyrs now than during the era of Roman persecutions.
Here’s my point. This week we American Catholics observe the third annual Fortnight for Freedom (June 21-July 4). The Fortnight exists to remind us what an exceptional gift we have in our nation’s guarantees of religious liberty. But those guarantees are only as strong as our zeal in insisting on them; and in our determination to fight hard for them in our legislatures and courts.
We’re a long way in the United States from the kind of terrible violence experienced by many Jews in Europe and many Christians in Asia and Africa. America remains, in large measure, a nation of law, common sense and good will. But coercion comes in many forms, and Americans have no magic immunity from today’s growing government interference with their natural and constitutional rights — or with their religious consciences.
The theme for this year’s Fortnight for Freedom is “Freedom to Serve.” The Catholic community in Philadelphia has a long — and in fact, unrivaled — legacy of helping the poor, the disabled, the hungry, the orphan, the elderly, the homeless and the immigrant. We’re proud of that legacy, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to serve the needs of the wider public.
What we ask in return is simple. It’s also thoroughly consistent with the American ideal of religious freedom. Our charitable ministries do what they do because they’re Catholic, because we’re Catholic, and they embody and carry out our religious beliefs. But our ministries, and we ourselves, quite logically need to serve without violating the very religious and moral convictions that led us to serve in the first place.
It’s a reasonable request, and for believing Catholics, a fundamentally important one. We’ll continue to press it in every way and at every level of judicial appeal available to us. And that’s at the heart of this year’s Fortnight for Freedom.