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Alito: Freedom of religion, speech key to democracy but now under threat


Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia applauds after awarding an honorary degree to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito May 17 at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. (CNS photo/Sarah Webb, CatholicPhilly.com)

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WYNNEWOOD, Pa. (CNS) -- The graduating class at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Philadelphia Archdiocese received a special treat at the Concursus graduation ceremony held in the seminary chapel May 17.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. received an honorary doctorate of letters and delivered the formal address.

The award to Alito was "in testimony to and recognition of his many outstanding contributions to society," Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in his introduction, "especially in protecting the sanctity and dignity of human life, the full responsibilities of the human person and promoting true justice and lasting peace."

In his address Alito spoke of the freedom of religion as enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution and encroachments on that freedom today.

A southern New Jersey native, he is well versed in the history of religious toleration as it developed in Philadelphia, and the important role that religion played in the development of the Constitution, including the visits by the Founding Fathers to the city's various churches, among them Old St. Mary's, tracing back to the Revolution.

Part of freedom of religion is "no one is forced to act in violation of his own beliefs," Alito said. "Most of my life Americans were instilled in this," he added, urging his audience to "keep the flame burning."

In an interview for the seminarians' blog, "Seminarian Casual," Alito said that "our most foresighted Founders understood that our country could not hold together unless religious freedom was protected."

Which is why, he said, George Washington, shortly after his election as the nation's first president "made a point of writing to minority religious groups, to the United Baptist churches in Virginia, the annual meeting of Quakers, the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, and to the nation's tiny Catholic population."

"Washington and other founders also saw a vital connection between religion and the character needed for republican self-government," Alito added. "What the founders understood more than 200 years ago is just as true today."

Regarding threats to religious freedom, the justice said, "There is cause for concern at the present time."

He noted that in his dissent in the Obergefell decision in which the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, "I anticipated that the decision would "be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy."

"I added, 'I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools."

After Alito's talk, Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Timothy C. Senior, rector of St. Charles Seminary, told CatholicPhilly.com, the archdiocesan news website, said he thought the justice "was very inspiring." "He reminded us that of the rights imbedded in our Constitution, religious freedom is the most fundamental and it is not respected throughout the world today."

Jim Godericci, who attended Concursus with his wife, Regina, who is a member of the seminary's development committee of the seminary, found it encouraging that "there are still some people in the justice field who still have a God-fearing, God-respecting attitude."

Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Harrisburg, who has seminarians at St. Charles and is himself a graduate, appreciated the topic of religious freedom, especially the local flavor and historical perspective.

"It's extremely important; so many of our citizens have no clue of the history of these issues," he said. "The contemporary feeling is not the same as at the roots."

Jerry Davis, a seminary trustee, thought Alito "said things we needed to hear. The talk was outstanding."

Addressing the assembly on behalf of the graduates was Aaron Lynch of the Diocese of Harrisburg, who received the bachelor of arts degree in philosophy "summa cum laude."

Focusing on the question, "Why are we here?" he said, "We are here for the same reason a Christian goes anywhere: to love God and others as Christ loves us and I thank him every day that he has sent me here to do it."

The address given by Lynch, who will now go on to theological studies, underscores the fact that St. Charles Seminary is not just a training ground for Philadelphia priests.

Of the nine seminarians receiving bachelor of arts degrees in philosophy, three are studying for Philadelphia, six for other dioceses.

Of those receiving a master of arts degree in philosophy, two were Philadelphians, six studied for other dioceses. Of those receiving a master's in divinity, six were for Philadelphia, 10 for other dioceses and one for a religious order.

Of the 15 receiving the master of arts degrees in theology, one was for Philadelphia, five were for other dioceses; five women religious, one deacon, two laymen and one laywoman also received masters. In addition, 35 laymen and laywomen received certificates in church ministry. Certificates for pre-theology candidates included two studying for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and six for other dioceses.

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Baldwin writes for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Eric Banecker contributed to this story.

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