The Nuncio on Religious Freedom

Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the new apostolic nuncio to the United States, is pictured at his residence at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

An Apostolic Nuncio functions as an ambassador representing the Pope in countries that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See.  In certain countries the Apostolic Nuncio is de facto the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps.  For instance, Archbishop Charles Brown of our own archdiocese, who is a friend of our parish, has that role in Ireland.  A Nuncio must be circumspect in speech without compromising the Church’s integrity.  When a Nuncio speaks publicly, it is safe to say that we are hearing the sentiments of the Holy Father himself.

The Vatican has been engaged in foreign diplomacy longer than any other institution in the world, and it knows from long experience how to press points with subtlety, so when a Nuncio uses strong words, the situation he is addressing must be of serious moment.

Never has a representative of the Holy See spoken about the state of the Church in the United States with such clarity and urgency as did Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, our new Nuncio, in an address on November 4 at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  The whole text would be a proper subject for meditation in our difficult times.  His topic was Religious Liberty, and he explained that this involves more than “freedom of worship,” which is a private exercise of faith.  “Freedom of religion” — guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — is the more encompassing free exercise of religious beliefs in public life.  This freedom is threatened now in our nation and, the Archbishop said, “This is a tragedy not only for the believer, but also for democratic society.”  Religious freedom is “a natural right which is not conferred by the state, because it subsists in the human person’s nature.”  Thus, religious freedom is to be protected by the government, and it is not something that the government has a right to limit or grant as though its source were the state and not God.

Archbishop Vigano said that there are those who would persecute the Church, and “martyrdom may not necessitate torture and death; however, the objective of those who desire to harm the faith may choose the path of ridiculing the believers so that they become outcasts from mainstream society and are marginalized from meaningful participation in public life.”  Consequently, “From the public viewpoint, the believer remains, but the faith eventually disappears.”  This is the intention of “important figures, some of whom hold high public office.”  As one practical example, the Nuncio said, “If George Orwell were still alive today, he would certainly have material to write a sequel to his famous novel 1984, in which the totalitarian state, amongst other things, found effective means for distancing children from their parents and monopolizing the control of educational processes especially on moral issues.”

In the words of Pope John Paul II: “A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”


Fr. George W. Rutler is a parish priest in Manhattan who is known internationally for his programs on EWTN, including Christ in the City and The Parables of Christ. He is the author of thirty-two books including newly released, A Year with Fr. RutlerHe holds degrees from Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Rome, and Oxford.

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