On his recent trip to Latin America, Pope Francis met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill for the first time since the schism between their two religions in the 11th century. Onlookers saw the meeting as a sign that two major faith groups had put aside differences that were out of date. But the leaders didn't leave behind all obsolete ideas. "Secularized societies" are "a grave threat to religious freedom," said their joint declaration. Their declaration sadly misrepresents the true meaning of secularism.
The pope and the patriarch must have forgotten the religious conflicts that caught up the Russian church, and Catholicism in the rest of Europe, before the idea of pluralism took hold. In a secular society, no one religion or religious belief is in any way oppressed. By the same token, true religious freedom does not favor one religion over another. Secularism does not threaten religion; it lets religion thrive. People of all faiths and no faith flourish under secularism, because all citizens can believe and practice as they see fit, and expect others to do the same. You cannot have freedom of religion without freedom from religion -- it is a two-sided coin. Nowhere is this more evident than the way these faith leaders treat women's rights.
Tragically, these two religious figures 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, as the majority of Russian Orthodox and Catholic women do. 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. That's because true religious freedom and reproductive freedom don't stand in opposition, no matter what the hierarchies in Rome or Russia might say.
If only the two leaders would have used a model like the Catholic church's 1966 Declaration on Religious Freedom as their example of religious freedom. It advocates for a society in which "all men are to be immune from coercion ... in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs...." The declaration also says that "the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens."
That's secularism. It's the life-giving idea that even though you do not share language, culture or creed with your neighbor, you share a common humanity. Religious leaders have the right to express their opinion, but the right to decide about one's own life choices 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 each person.
Secularism is not a threat to Europe or anywhere else. The pope and the patriarch's joint declaration is a prime example of the dangers of religious leaders advocating their own opinions over and above individuals' right to follow their own conscience. It is past time when religious leaders need to ask themselves what serious and devastating effects on social justice will occur if their worldview is imposed upon others. The world over, we have seen that encoding a restrictive view into law has devastating effects on the poor, who cannot overcome barriers to healthcare like the rich. It's poor women who suffer. It's poor women who die without access to services.
We hope and pray that our religious leaders listen to and explore the reality of women as much as they seem willing to listen to each other. If they can erase a thousand years of separation, why can't they do the same for women?