World Youth Day Diary: Day Two

Every day of this year’s triennial week-long Catholic festival in Madrid, Anna Halpine reports from the world’s largest gathering of young people.

Young pilgrims in Madrid continue to celebrate, with the streets full of flags, joy-filled young people, and songs in many languages. Their joy is a joy that is rooted in their faith, and today many pilgrims explored the relationship of this faith to reason. Amid the cultural events and parties, many pilgrims are also participating in serious panels and engaging with current topics.

An important panel on religious freedom was hosted today at the central English-speaking “Love and Life” site. Participants included Archbishop Chaput, Archbishop-designate of Philadelphia, Mr Carl Anderson, Supreme Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus (and sponsor of the entire Love and Life site), Fr Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt and Life TV network in Canada, and Helen Alvare, formerly spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and now professor of law at George Mason University.

In a stadium housing roughly 3,000 young pilgrims, the panel discussed the idea of religious freedom for an hour and a half. The central points of all panellists were clear: religious freedom springs from the dignity of the person, and is therefore prior to the state. Free and just societies are those that respect the dignity of the person and the rights that this entails, and must, therefore, allow and enable freedom of religion. States that deny religious freedom do so only by abrogating fundamental rights and freedoms to themselves, thus establishing the state as a religion of its own, but one which denies individual citizens the right to freely worship according to their consciences. Thus we see that the denial of religious freedom leads to a form of totalitarianism, and totalitarian states.

Given this analysis, current trends in Western states to limit freedom of conscience point to grave weaknesses within democratic systems. Democracy and free states cannot coexist without religious freedom, which is the first among rights, since it protects all other rights and freedoms. In this way, religious freedom also provides the reason for tolerance and justice within society.

Challenges to religious freedom are increasing in Western states, most notably arising from debates around such issues as contraception, abortion and gay marriage. In each of these instances arguments are proposed to suggest that religious freedom must be limited in order to mandate and ensure tolerance for the choices of individuals who engage in the above options and lifestyle choices. This is a dangerous approach, however, since it is precisely the guarantee of religious freedom that enables tolerance to flourish within society. Once a particular group or set of beliefs are controlled or managed by the state, all freedom of expression and belief is fundamentally curtailed and state-dictated ideology follows.

Pilgrims at this panel discussion were reminded that faced with these serious difficulties and worrying trends, they are the hope for the future. The responsibility to understand the great challenges of our time, and to engage these challenges with reason, clarity and conviction was the task being clearly presented to the pilgrims now in Madrid. They responded to this challenge with continual, enthusiastic applause. They are serious about the reason and purpose for coming to Madrid and this seriousness bodes well for the future of Spain and the world.

Anna Halpine is the founder of World Youth Alliance.

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