Vatican journalist addresses religious freedom

October 11, 2011

HOUSTON — Living in the city that has the pulse of the Church — Vatican City — can be uplifting for anyone living its faith. But for John L Allen Jr., living in the landlocked sovereign city-state part of the year certainly has its challenges because of his role as a professional journalist. 

The author, journalist and analyst divides his year in thirds. One third he’s at the Vatican, another at his home in Denver, Colo. and the other third Allen hits the road giving lectures and speeches of his own professional experiences as a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter or as Vatican analyst for CNN news.

He recently shared his views during his speech on “Religious Freedom: Its Theological Roots and Its Place in U.S. National Policy” at the annual University of St. Thomas Center for Faith and Culture Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza Lecture.

“The contribution that I make to that conversation is I’m a guy whose job is covering the Vatican and using that as a point of departure for covering the global Catholic Church,” Allen said by phone interview to the Texas Catholic Herald. “The emphasis of the speech therefore was less on the deep theological, philosophical roots of Catholic thinking on religious freedom, but more on the Church’s engagement in sense of religious freedom in the here and now.”

His approach was simple during his lecture. Allen took what he described as a 360 degree look around the world about where the frontlines of the battle for religious freedom are and why the Vatican cares about them so much. And why the Vatican is so anxious to get American Catholics a little bit more mobilized on some of these issues affecting religious freedom.

“What I try to provide to American Catholics is a global perspective of the Church that has 1.2 billion people of which 65 million live in the United States — which means that 94 percent of the Catholic population lives some place other than America,” Allen said. “Part of what I hoped I accomplished was to bring the stories of that 94 percent of the Church to American home audiences.”

Allen pointed to the Middle East — the birthplace of Christianity — as an example. A place where, he said, there is a real danger that Christianity may disappear as meaningful social force. 

“In the Christian community there has been a decline, for the better part of the century, and that has certainly accelerated in the last couple of decades,” Allen said. “Iraq would be a good example. We are talking about a place that just two decades ago had the second largest Christian community in the Middle East with more than 2 million Christians. Today, the most generous estimate is around 400,000, and most people think it’s closer to 250,000. Which means it’s lost two-thirds of its Christian population since 1991 — the first Gulf War. Religious freedom inevitably is a huge piece of that picture because the primary threat to the Christians in that part of the world, in addition to the political chaos and instability, is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism — a threat that poses to the viability of a pluralistic society. The issue the Vatican is concerned with — not merely for the symbolic reason — is the disappearance of Christianity in the land of Christ’s birth.”

Not only was the lecture informative to all who attended at the University of St. Thomas, but Allen himself admitted that part of why he commits to lectures is to enrich his own faith.

“What it brings home is that for all of the heartache and the angst in the Church, I see the real vitality, dynamism and life when you move around,” Allen said. “Everywhere I go I find people that are deeply committed to the Church who are asking very intelligent questions about the issues the Church faces — and this helps and give me a shot in the arm in my faith.” †