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Pope and Patriarch Misrepresent the True Meaning of Secularism and Seek to Impose their Beliefs on Others

February 18, 2016

On his way to Mexico, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic church, met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill for the first time since the schism of the two religions in the 11th century. They signed an interreligious joint declaration that was supposed to solidify their shared Christian values, but instead the document attacks secularism and true religious freedom. The leaders stated that “Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots” instead of putting their combined authority behind freedom of and from religion. The document decries abortion and calls reproductive technologies “an attack on the foundations of human existence.”

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said, “Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill sadly misrepresent the true meaning of secularism. A secular society is not one in which one religion or religious belief is in any way oppressed, but one in which all citizens can practice as they see fit. In a secular society, we can have freedom of religion and freedom from religion. True religious freedom respects the rights of others to practice or not as they see fit. It does not favor one religion over another and it does not force other religions to adhere to a particular religious belief. You cannot have freedom of religion without freedom from religion—it is a two-sided coin.”

O’Brien continued, “It is tragic that two religious leaders would display a serious blind spot when it comes to the rights of women. In particular, their statement ignores the necessity for women to be able to make decisions about their reproductive health according to their own conscience and free of coercion. Religious leaders have the right to express their opinion, but the right to decide about one’s own life choices is one that rests with individuals. The state should not be party to coercive practices that seek to elevate one person’s theological view or personal opinion above the rights of individuals.

“It is ironic that within both the Orthodox and Roman traditions, majorities of believers all over the world do not agree with these religious leaders and have continued to use birth control and abortion in good faith. Women of faith—whether Russian Orthodox or Roman Catholic—do follow their own consciences when it comes to reproductive health. In Russia, 69 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox, and more than half of sexually active women have had an abortion. Similarly, a global survey of Catholics found that 66 percent believed that abortion should be permitted in some or all circumstances. Having failed to convince their own communities to adhere to their perspective, both leaders are trying to influence laws to deny fundamental rights. Such an imposition over law would have a devastating effect on the poor, who do not have the financial means to overcome barriers to health the ways that the rich can.”

Continued O’Brien, “It is past time when religious leaders need to ask themselves what the serious and devastating effects on social justice would be if their worldview is successfully imposed upon others. Women’s voices are very often lost—their experiences and the reality of their lives dismissed. We hope and pray our religious leaders listen to and explore the reality of women—especially within their own faith tradition, which should tell them they are not seeing or refusing to recognize the needs of the faithful. We expect politicians to continue to legislate for all and not listen to documents like the joint statement that seek to impose one particular theological belief over all.

“Catholicism is more than the teachings written down by the pope and theologians—at its core is the role of individual conscience. We have not only the right but also the obligation to make moral decisions based on our own consciences. We will continue to do so.”

Watch our video, “Can Faith and Freedom Co-Exist?” which explains the true concept of religious freedom and a secular society.

Read our open letter to Pope Francis in the International New York Times, asking him to do the right thing for women in Latin America who are made vulnerable to the Zika epidemic and lift the bans on abortion and birth control.