Dean G. Marcus Cole’s Welcome Address at the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome

Author: Dean G. Marcus Cole

Marcuscole 2022rlsummit

Good morning! I am Marcus Cole, Dean of Notre Dame Law School, and Founder of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative. On behalf of myself and our Faculty Director, Professor Stephanie Barclay, our interim Faculty Co-Directors Professor Nicole Garnett and Professor Rick Garnett, Senior Supervising Attorney John Meiser, and the entire legal and administrative staff of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative, it is my distinct honor and privilege to welcome you to the Second Annual Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, highlighted by the presentation of the Notre Dame Prize for Religious Liberty.

The theme of this year’s Religious Liberty Summit, Dignitatis humanae, is taken from the statement of the same name promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965, at the end of Vatican Council II. This document is the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, and it sets out the Catholic Church’s support for religious freedom. While the vote of the Council was an overwhelming 2,308 to 70, this declaration in support of religious freedom was not uncontroversial. The Catholic Church had a history of using its elevated political status and power within Christendom to suppress nonconformity. Dignitatis humanae represented, to some, a revolutionary shift in the Church’s approach to religious freedom. Whether it is a shift or a clarification of Church doctrine, the protection and defense of religious freedom is central to the Catholic faith today. To me, as a Catholic, religious freedom is an essential extension of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, where Jesus commands me to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

Religious freedom is a necessary precondition for anyone to choose a faith, including mine. The world is also learning that it is an essential precondition for political freedom, economic prosperity, and human flourishing.

When we founded the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative three years ago, we conceived of it as a comprehensive approach to preserve, protect, restore, and defend religious freedom in the United States and around the world, against all of its enemies. While we come from many different faith traditions, and some from none at all, we are all here today because we share the fundamental belief that freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are essential to human flourishing. Indeed, they are fundamental human rights. 

When we last gathered a year ago in Indiana, we were just emerging from a global lockdown because of the COVID pandemic. Indeed, our meeting on the campus of the University of Notre Dame last year was the first public event permitted by the University or the county in which it sits. Yes, there have been more outbreaks and waves since then, but the COVID pandemic exposed precisely how vulnerable freedom of religion actually is, and how little it is valued by those in power. We saw that when fear and panic strikes the general population, people of faith are often the first to suffer the repressive restrictions of government. What is worse, people of faith are often scapegoated for the outbreaks.

But the fog of the pandemic is lifting. It would be an understatement to say that this has been a good year for religious liberty. In the United States, we have seen momentous court decisions at every level, striking down discriminatory restrictions on people of faith and religious practices. We at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Clinic have participated in many of the victories, and our lawyers and students have led in some of them. We have seen the Supreme Court of the United States come down decisively in favor of neutrality when religious groups wanted to participate with secular groups in displays on public property. We have also seen the Court side with a public school employee who merely wanted to exercise his right to pray after a public event. And we have heard the decision of the Court in favor of families of faith who were denied public educational benefits simply because they wanted their children to be educated at faith-based schools.

While we can take heart from these positive developments in the United States, there is much more work to be done.

We cannot let the joyous results in the United States cause us to become complacent. There is a reason why cases involving religious freedom have come to prominence in the Supreme Court’s docket. It is because assaults on religious freedom have become so common in American life. There will be more of these cases, and soon.

We also cannot lose sight of what is happening in the rest of the world. Darkness is reaching out in an attempt to envelop the Earth, and crush religious freedom in places where it is most needed. Across the global south, in Africa and Latin America, there is a movement afoot called the Abidjan Principles, which has the purported purpose of forcing religious schools in developing communities to conform to public educational standards. The practical effect, however, is to eliminate religion in schools, including religious educators. This is particularly pernicious since the overwhelming majority of quality schools in the developing world are provided by religious schools and educators.

We also cannot forget that there are still thirteen countries in the world where being an atheist is a crime punishable by death. That penalty – death – also still awaits those convicted of blasphemy laws. Persecution of Catholics and Christians around the world persists. Churches are burned, and believers are beheaded.

And we must never turn a blind eye to the genocide taking place in Western China, where over one million Uyghurs have been placed into concentration camps, for no other crime than the fact that they worship Allah rather than Xi Jinping.

The purpose of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit is threefold. First, it is to connect those of us who are engaged in the fight for religious freedom, to share our work, as well as encouragement and support. The second, we want to leverage the global footprint of the University of Notre Dame, and our campuses and gateways around the world, to highlight the global nature of this fight for religious freedom. That is why we are here in Rome, near our Rome campus, and why we will hold our next Summit at our London Law Centre in Trafalgar Square. 

The third, and most important purpose of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit is to formulate and coordinate strategy, so that we can construct an efficient and effective bulwark against those who threaten religious freedom.

It is critical that we join forces, for none of us has all of the resources necessary to win this battle alone. While we at Notre Dame have raised nearly $50 million towards the fight for religious liberty, I can say two things about what we have accomplished. 

First, I am proud to say that the overwhelming majority of our resources come from donors who have never given to an organization fighting for the cause of religious freedom before. Our donors are “first-time” donors in this fight. That means that most of these resources are new resources, adding to those of our partners like Beckett and the Religious Freedom Institute. Indeed, we must all be partners, or we will all fail.

Second, although we have amassed a considerable sum, it is not enough. I was once asked how big do I want the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative to be. My immediate answer, without missing a heartbeat, was, “As big as God wants it to be.”

We are going up against federal, state, local government officials who have the power to tax to fund their assault on our freedoms. And we go up against the largest, most powerful, and repressive surveillance state ever imagined. When I spoke before the U.K. Parliament earlier this month, I was asked whether the Chinese Communist Party laughs at human rights lawsuits filed by a Catholic university in the United States. My answer was that they may laugh at us now, but that we intend to grow this thing. We intend to shine a light on their abuses, torture, rape, forced labor, and murder. We intend to grow this thing until people around the world rise up to fight for religious freedom, if not for others, then for their own. We intend to grow this thing so that the people they hope to control recognize that their leaders are morally culpable, and perhaps unfit to rule. They can laugh at us and our efforts now, but we intend to grow this thing. 

They can laugh at us now, but we will not go away. 

This city – Rome – should remind all of us that no empire or entity is impervious to the truth. We sit here in the capital of the most powerful empire the world has ever known. The ruins of that empire are all around us. As my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ told us in Matthew 24:2, “Do you see all of these buildings? Truly I tell you that they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another.” Look around you. Your own eyes are witness to the truth of His words. The once great Roman empire was brought down – conquered – by an idea. That idea was a faith.

The Romans laughed at a faith, but in the end, their laughter ended.

So, the enemies of religious freedom can laugh at us now, but we will not go away. We will continue to fight for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion until it is enjoyed by all.

So that is why we are all here. We should enjoy fellowship, intellectual engagement, and new partnerships. These relationships and experiences will prove invaluable in this fight to preserve, protect, and defend religious freedom. None of us has all of the answers, or all of the resources. It is our hope that we can learn from, and borrow from, each other at this Summit, and in the months and years to come. The Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative wants to serve as the connection that allows the sum of our efforts to be greater than the individual parts.

Together we can be a force for good in the world. 

Thank you, and welcome to Rome.