Good evening and welcome to the second annual Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit gala dinner, marked by the awarding of the 2022 Notre Dame Prize for Religious Liberty.
Before I say another word, I want to give all the glory and honor to God. I give thanks for Notre Dame University and its president, Fr. John Jenkins, who gave us the opportunity to build the Religious Liberty Initiative, and to set up a structure to fight for religious liberty. I would like to thank everyone who made this moment possible. I am deeply grateful to the Moroun family of Michigan for entrusting us with the resources to make us a true force for religious liberty. Their generosity enabled me to fly to Provo, Utah and present my vision to Professor Stephanie Barclay. I am grateful to Stephanie for believing in this vision and taking a leap of faith that together we could build a truly unique institution.
I would like to thank the team that Stéphanie has put together. When we flew John Meiser to his internship with Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, we had no way of knowing that he would be such a gifted advocate, teacher, and thinker in the fight for religious liberty. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Clinic’s first-year success, with student briefs in 10 cases, including five before the U.S. Supreme Court, was largely due to skill, hard work, teaching ability and dedication. I really appreciate you, John, for all you’ve done.
When I accepted my appointment as dean of Notre Dame Law School, I promised our president, Father John Jenkins, that I would found a religious liberty clinic. I believe that as the leading Catholic institution in the United States, Notre Dame must not only be in the debate over religious freedom, we must lead the fight to preserve, protect, and defend it.
I believe the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative brings a unique structure to the fight for religious liberty. The mission of Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative is to promote human flourishing by serving as a source of advocacy, counsel, scholarship, training, fellowship, and hope in defense of the fundamental human right to freedom of religion or conviction for all.
To accomplish this mission, the Notre Dame Initiative for Religious Liberty is composed of several components, each of which is directed towards one or more of our three strategic objectives, namely,
- thought leadership;
- Professional training; and
The heart of the Religious Liberty Initiative is the Our Lady of Religious Liberty Clinic. The clinic is designed to engage in advocacy through litigation at all levels and in all legal systems. At the clinic, Notre Dame graduate law students handle a range of cases on behalf of clients from a wide range of religious traditions and all political backgrounds. We represented native tribes in Arizona against mining interests who hoped to take and desecrate their sacred lands, Oak Flats. One of our clients, Grandma Mona Polacca is here with us tonight. We also represented Muslim organizations in New York that advocated for the rights of Orthodox Jews facing discriminatory COVID restrictions.
This is actually my favorite case, because I think it says a lot about who we are: a Catholic law school, with a clinic run by a director who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. , supervising Catholic, Jewish and Atheist students, representing a Muslim organization, defending the rights of Orthodox Jews. God bless America!
A second component of Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative is our program on Church, State and Society, led by Professor Rick Garnett. This program provides in-depth legal instruction and training for top students interested in law and religion. These students are chosen through a highly selective process and most receive full scholarships to attend Notre Dame Law School. Many of these students also attend the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Clinic.
A third component of the Religious Liberty Initiative is our Religious Liberty Scholars. These include members of the Notre Dame Law School, as well as scholars from across the University of Notre Dame, in political science, theology, philosophy, business, and even the School of architecture. These academics bring their expertise on issues of religious freedom.
One of the most important elements of the Notre Dame Initiative for Religious Freedom is our Religious Freedom Summit. These summits are designed to be held annually, leveraging the University of Notre Dame’s global footprint to highlight the global nature of threats to religious freedom. I am very grateful that you have all joined us here in Rome, and I sincerely hope that you will all join us next year at the 2023 Summit at our London Law Center in Trafalgar Square.
So why are we doing this? Why are we here in the heat of Roman July, discussing the issues and challenges facing religious freedom? The reason why we are here can be illustrated by a story, which is familiar to many of you, but which I think of often.
On June 4, 1999, an elderly Catholic priest walked quietly with a dozen of his parishioners from his church to a park, where he began to pray. That priest was Joseph Cardinal Zen, the Roman Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong. He walked into a park that day to pray for the souls of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre on that date 10 years earlier. He also prayed for the souls of Chinese soldiers who killed their fellow citizens and for the souls of those who ordered the killing.
This handful of praying Catholics caught the attention of the media, which in turn caught the attention of the Chinese Communist Party authorities in Beijing. Anyone who has been to China at the beginning of June knows that the internet is shut down for the days leading up to and following June 2-4. Any mention of the Tiananmen Square Massacre is strictly prohibited. And so, the fact that this old priest is praying for the victims of the massacre has caused consternation in the government.
Beijing authorities reacted by ordering a change in the curriculum of all Catholic schools in Beijing. Instruction should be conducted using materials and manuals prescribed by the Chinese Communist Party. History texts, in particular, could no longer mention anything denigrating the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party.
Cardinal Zen responded by protesting the change. Again, he led a prayer march to the park on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. This time dozens of people joined him in prayer.
Each year, the crowds at Cardinal Zen’s annual prayer for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre grew. He was soon joined by non-Catholics. The crowds swelled by the hundreds. Then thousands. Then tens of thousands. Then hundreds of thousands.
Today, what we call Hong Kong’s “umbrella movement” started with a simple prayer from an elderly Catholic priest. This prayer was fueled by his faith. His faith — the one I share — gave him a conscience. This conscience told him that what he witnessed at Tiananmen was wrong. This awareness gave him compassion for the victims.
This awareness makes him dangerous.
Just two months ago, on May 11, Chinese authorities arrested 90-year-old Joseph Cardinal Zen.
What makes a 90-year-old Catholic priest so dangerous? What weapon does he wield that threatens one of the most powerful armies the Earth has ever known?
The weapon that the Chinese authorities fear is this conscience.
The suppression and suppression of the people of Hong Kong began today with a prayer. And now the 90-year-old priest leading this prayer has been deemed so dangerous by Chinese authorities that they have deemed it necessary to lock him up.
I do not know Cardinal Zen personally; in fact, I have never met or spoken with him. Nevertheless, I am certain of one thing: no prison cell, chains, locks or Chinese handcuffs will prevent him from praying.
The story of Cardinal Zen should be instructive for us. Government actors know that if people have freedom of conscience – the freedom to read, pray, believe and act on those beliefs – then corruption, injustice and abuse of power will be exposed.
This is why it is the first freedom that authoritarian regimes attack.
This is why it is the first freedom that we must protect.
To protect it, we must do three things.
First, we must strategically identify and neutralize immediate threats to religious freedom. That’s why we engage in advocacy, done through our Religious Freedom Clinic and partners like Becket.
Second, as Archbishop Angaelos said in his remarks this morning, we need to change the narrative. We must move from a defensive posture to a posture of pursuit of the common good. As President Oaks said yesterday, we need to demonstrate the good that religion and believers do in our communities. This will help us with the third key.
Third, we must educate the public — our fellow citizens — about why freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are important to their, whether they are believers or not. But especially if they are not people of faith. We must communicate the message illustrated by the story of Cardinal Zen. We need to get others to understand why freedom of religion is essential to all of our freedoms.
In the end, legal victories in the courts are not enough. They will only last as long as the political winds allow, which will be far too short if we don’t also win in front of public opinion. President Lyndon Johnson once said something similar when he said that instead of winning an argument, he would much rather win a convert. Those of us who understand the fundamental importance of religious liberty to our survival and to our souls must persuade to win converts. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 19 and 20, my Lord Jesus Christ commanded me “to go and make disciples of all the nations”… and to “teach them to observe all that I commanded you”. As a Christian and as a Catholic, I ask myself, how can I do this, if I cannot testify to my faith, through my actions and my words? In short, we must defend religious freedom, in the United States and around the world, because our souls depend on it. And the freedom of the world too. Thanks.