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Freedom of Religion and the Teachings of St. John Paul II

Religious freedom should not be impeded by the state because “human beings flourish in religion,” according to John Hittinger, director of the John Paul II Institute and a philosophy professor at the University of St. Thomas.

Hittinger moderated a panel discussion of three guest speakers entitled “John Paul II and the Right of Free Exercise of Religion” on Jan. 28 to an audience of over 60 people.   

The panel was hosted by UST’s new online John Paul II M.A. program, which was founded in 2019 and has enrolled approximately 15 students so far, according to Hittinger.

Director of the Center of Faith and Culture at UST, Rev. Binh Quach, began the discussion by recounting his 16 years of ministry under Asian Communist regimes. 

Quach said keeping religious institutions separate from the state is “fair”, but does not mean religion should be totally isolated from society. He also equated the separation of church and state to the “silencing” of religion he witnessed in China and Vietnam.

Quach said when he came to the United States in 1982, he fell in love with the U.S. Constitution and freedom of religion.

“The First Amendment is not to silence the religious voice but to free religion from state control so that more religious values and discourse can be cultivated,” he said. 

Another speaker, assistant professor of political science at Houston Baptist University Shannon Holzer, said he first encountered “the rise of secularism” when he tried to write a history exam for his students on the Declaration of Independence. 

He was advised against asking the question “true or false: all men are created equal” by a colleague, for fear that it could be seen as a religious question about Creation.

“My colleague said, ‘Well, if you asked that, you would need to look for another job.’” Holzer remembered. 

The third speaker, President of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington D.C., Tom Farr said four-fifths of the world’s population–that is, 80 percent,  lives in a place where religious freedom does not exist and where practicing faith is “highly or very highly restricted.”

He referenced a recent Angelus address by Pope Francis, where Francis said the faithful must be “vigilant against the pollution of hypocrisy, vanity and greed.”

Farr added, “We need to be more than vigilant. It is time, I think, for people of goodwill to fight back.”

Farr noted that St. John Paul II wanted to visit the Soviet Union and China during his papacy, but couldn’t because as a “champion for religious freedom, he was seen as a threat.”

Even before, as the archbishop of Krakow, John Paul II “was identified as a threat to Communism,” Farr said. 

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