In words primarily directed toward Europe but which could just as easily have been a veiled warning to the Obama administration, Pope Benedict XVI issued a robust defense of freedom of conscience during his trip to Croatia last weekend.
Addressing members of civil society in Zagreb June 4, the Pope reminded those present that respect for conscience “is fundamental for a free and just society, both at national and supranational levels.”
The great achievements of the modern age, he added, owe themselves to “the recognition and guarantee of freedom of conscience, of human rights, of the freedom of science and hence of a free society.”
Last year, the Council of Europe proposed a resolution that would have demanded member states curb the freedom of conscience of medical doctors and nurses. The proposal was later voted down. However, last month the Obama administration stood by its decision to force pro-life medical professionals to dispense so-called “emergency contraception” such as abortion-inducing drugs, thereby removing their right to refuse on grounds of conscience.
The Pope stressed that the “quality of social and civil life and the quality of democracy depend in large measure” on conscience. He warned: “If, in keeping with the prevailing modern idea, conscience is reduced to the subjective field to which religion and morality have been banished, then the crisis of the West has no remedy, and Europe is destined to collapse in on itself.”
Only if conscience is “rediscovered as the place in which to listen to truth and good, the place of responsibility before God and before fellow human beings — in other words, the bulwark against all forms of tyranny — then there is hope for the future,” Benedict XVI said. And he added that it is by forming consciences “that the Church makes her most specific and valuable contribution to society” as conscience is “the keystone on which to base a culture and build up the common good.”
The Pope's June 4-5 pilgrimage to Croatia, his 19th visit outside Italy, was short and intense but well timed, coinciding with an imminent announcement on the outcome of Croatia's bid to join the European Union.
Benedict XVI said he supported Croatian membership because he believes the country, with its rich Christian heritage, would be more effective within rather than outside the union in helping reverse the secularism that is sweeping across the continent.
In common with previous papal visits, Benedict XVI spoke with characteristic clarity to young people, encouraging them to be “rooted in Christ” in order to “fully become the person you are meant to be.” Jesus, he said, “is not a teacher who deceives his disciples: he tells us clearly that walking by his side calls for commitment and personal sacrifice, but it is worth the effort.”
The Pope also spoke out strongly in defence of the traditional family. At a Mass on Sunday, he called on all people to recognize the beauty, joy and witness of Christian marriage and family life, and firmly rejected the harm caused by secularism, artificial contraception and living together before marriage, all of which, he said, are opposed to true love.
Secularism, he observed, has reduced love “to sentimental emotion and to the gratification of instinctive impulses, without a commitment to build lasting bonds of reciprocal belonging and without openness to life.”
Addressing parents in particular, Benedict XVI said “openness to life is a sign of openness to the future, confidence in the future, just as respect for the natural moral law frees people, rather than demeaning them.”
This was Benedict XVI's first visit outside the Italian mainland this year. His next will be in August, to Madrid, Spain, where he will attend the Catholic Church's tri-annual World Youth Day.
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