By Matthew Bowman
Political analysts are busy spinning which progressive cause they think Pope Francis promoted the most during his United States visit: fighting climate change, aiding the poor, abolishing the death penalty.
They're missing the pope's most consistent drumbeat on a policy issue, whether liberal or conservative. Religious liberty and the freedom of conscience.
In both words and actions, Pope Francis issued a clarion call for religious freedom throughout his American tour.
In the opening words of the pope's first major event—his visit to the White House—he insisted on a robust respect for the "right to religious liberty." Calling it "one of America's most precious possessions," the Pope urged that religious freedom be defended "from everything that would threaten or compromise it."
Pope Francis' pitch to President Obama on religious freedom was significant in two additional ways that are subtle but equally powerful. First, the pope framed his remarks as a foil to the dominant cultural push for "toleran[ce]" and against "discrimination." Those are the labels used by President Obama and the same-sex marriage and abortion movements to crush freedom of conscience, for wedding photographers, cake bakers, churches, pro-life doctors, religious hospitals, and families in business. The Pope insisted that those trends not be used to compromise religious freedom.
The pope also endorsed what "my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us" in their own religious freedom campaign. That campaign has been unswerving in defense of freedom of conscience, so much so that liberal critics within the Catholic Church have often ridiculed it. The U.S. Bishops' most recent efforts have been catalyzed by, and have spoken courageously against, President Obama's mandate that abortifacients and birth control be covered in the health insurance plans of objecting citizens and organizations.
Which brings us to one of the most striking gestures of Pope Francis' visit. On the same day as his White House meeting, the pope made an unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor. This was not a mere visit to a group of nuns. The official Vatican spokesman said it was "obviously" a show of support for the Sisters' lawsuit against Obamacare's abortion-pill mandate.
For perspective on the significance of this event, consider that some people criticized the pope for not meeting with political dissidents before he left Cuba. In America, he made sure to embrace people who have been targeted for punishment by their government, simply because they want to live and serve in society without being forced to violate their consciences regarding the sanctity of human life and sexuality.
Pope Francis reiterated his defense of religious freedom by exhorting Congress to deal with heated social conflicts by respecting "convictions of conscience." At the United Nations he called religious freedom an "absolute minimum" for justice. At Ground Zero he urged us to resist "every attempt to impose uniformity" in religious matters.
Pope Francis echoed the theme against forced uniformity at his keynote address of the "Meeting for Religious Liberty" on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, where the U.S. Constitution was drafted. There the pope called religious freedom a "fundamental right," not just for private worship but "in the public square" and as "part of the culture. "Pluralism, the pope explained, does not require compromise of religious freedom, but on the contrary demands respect for it.
Pope Francis capped off this theme on his return flight to Rome. He was asked whether government officials also possess religious freedom, such as "in issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples."
The pope's answer put an exclamation point on a visit permeated with exhortations in favor of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. "Conscientious objection is a right, and part of the body of all human rights. Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure. If a government official is a human person, he has that right."
These are not surprising words considering it was revealed that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, privately, after addressing Congress. His words of encouragement to her were, "Thank you for your courage. Stay strong."
The Pope's amazing private action shows that his public drumbeat on religious freedom was no afterthought. It was at the heart of his mission to the United States.
Update: Regarding the Vatican's latest statement, during his visit to the United States Pope Francis championed religious freedom, the U.S. bishops' campaign, and the Obamacare lawsuits. In addition he thanked Kim Davis, whether or not that included the case in "all its complex aspects".