The Wilderness Within: Pope Francis, Moses, and Religious Liberty

[This is a previously unpublished piece written shortly after Pope Francis’s visit to the United States in 2015]

Part of the genius of Pope Francis’s evangelization efforts is his commitment to rooting his teaching in the particular place where he teaches. During his visit to the United States, we witnessed him transplant his witness to our native soil, modifying his starting point and tone depending upon the city and occasion in which he spoke. When speaking directly to the entire nation during the joint session of Congress, he exemplified this approach in dialoguing with Americans through “the historical memory of your people.” Many have already commented upon the four figures he chose to represent this historical memory of the United States, and rightfully so. But before he spoke to Americans through our “Fantastic Four”, he grafted our historical memory onto a figure who represents an even deeper memory: Moses.

Speaking directly to the Congressional leaders seated before him at the outset of his speech, Pope Francis sowed this particular form of evangelization with these words:

Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of people to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face (Pope Francis, Speech to U.S. Congress, 09/24/2015).

Invoking the figure of Moses communicates not simply the responsibility to govern according to the just application of the law, but indeed the courageous act and protracted effort of leading a people out of situations of oppression. Martin Luther King drew heavily upon Moses as a type for the daring march towards civil rights, allowing his own leadership to be likened to that of the one who led his people out of the slavery of Egypt. In this speech, Francis works in similar fashion, except that rather than relating Moses to a single figure, he implicitly connects the entire historical memory of the American People to the mission of this servant of liberation when he presents our four figures in this fashion:

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton (Pope Francis, Speech to U.S. Congress, 09/24/2015).

Retelling the story of the American People as a story that began in the pursuit of liberty, that progresses in seeking this liberty for all, and that shall always be an ongoing project to secure liberty so that dialogue and peace may become its fruits, makes the story of the United States a story of religious liberty.

Linking King’s mission of civil liberty for the oppressed to his mission as a religious leader is not unique to Francis’s speech, especially since, as mentioned above, King himself associated the two in his own identity. What is more distinctive in this speech is what he does with the last two figures: Day and Merton. They are more typically recognized with a religious identity, but Francis stretches them into figures of civil liberation within the historical memory of the American People. They are, as it were, the fruits of the struggle for that liberty on behalf of which Lincoln and King toiled mightily, each at the cost of his own life.  

For Day, the gift of the free exercise of her own agency allowed her to toil willfully and creatively to grant this gift of freedom to those who remain oppressed under unjust economic systems—i.e., the ones who bear the brunt of systemic forms of isolation and alienation. She was free to voluntarily throw her lot in with those whom civil society left behind, and, even more, to establish an association with others for the sake of pursuing this mission. By placing Merton at the end of this line even though, chronologically, he should have come before King (by order of birth) or before Day (by order of death), Francis presents the Trappist monk as an image of the fruit of liberty in its mature phase. Merton represents the freedom to engage with others without the urge to dominate them and without threat of being dominated by them, specifically because he remained open to God, who is outside the systems of worldly power, including the power of the state. Moreover, Merton is shaped in a monastic vision of the world and, in fact, becomes a living testament to the unpredictable fruit of that form of institutional identity. Francis thus tells the story of the American People as a story rooted in the struggle for liberty, which ripens into the possibility of peaceful engagement because of the cultivation of the space within civil society for religious worship that is oriented beyond the confines of civil society. With these two figures, their particular institutional identity and associations are represented as not only good for them, but also good for society itself.

In the Philadelphia speech that he explicitly dedicated to the issue of religious liberty, Francis disclosed the theme that implicitly animated his speech to Congress two days earlier:

Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. [… Religions] remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power (Pope Francis, Speech at Independence Hall, 09/25/2015).

In short, a Thomas Merton is only possible if the freedom to contemplate God is secured, which also means that the fruitful dialogue that emerges from such a figure depends upon the freedom from any power that seeks to take away the liberty of a human being before God, whether in private or in public, individually or institutionally. Behind this somewhat complex argument is the single figure of Moses, with whom the possibility of the just ordering of his people’s civil life depended upon their unfettered freedom to worship their God. Therefore, to more fully appreciate the historical memory that Pope Francis related to the American People during his apostolic visit, it is helpful to grow in an understanding of the issue of religious liberty in relation to the figure of Moses. 

As told in the Book of Exodus, the future of the story of the People of Israel depends upon their liberation from Egypt. In this instance—as with every story of freedom—there are two sides to the issue: freedom from something and freedom for something. At first, both sides of this liberation seem rather obvious: Israel is freed from the land of Egypt and the rule of Pharaoh, and they are freed for inheriting a land of their own. Reflecting more deeply on the land they are promised, however, reveals that that the goodness of that land depends upon a more fundamental freedom: the freedom to worship their God. This fundamental freedom requires that they be freed from those powers that would restrict that freedom and that they are freed for the possibility of giving themselves fully to this task (if, how, and when they actually learn to exercise that freedom is another part of the story.) The Promised Land is the space where the Israelites can exercise and express their identity as the people who belong to “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6, JPS; cf. Mt 22:32; Acts 3:13).


Pope Francis’s predecessor provides helpful instruction on the significance of this liberation when he observes that the freedom for the unrestricted worship of their God is the central demand Moses made to Pharaoh on God’s behalf (see Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, part 1, section 1). Through Moses, God gives this command to Pharaoh: “Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness,” (Ex 7:16, JPS). Moses’ first mission is to lead all of Israel out into the wilderness in order to worship—it is only because of Pharaoh’s obstinancy that this flight is permanent and without return.

The wilderness is, in this case, the place of radical freedom: the space for worship that allows the Israelites to be totally open to their God. The dimensions or qualities of this space cannot be negotiated beforehand, for acts of worship are oriented towards the complete self-offering of the worshipping community. If religions make ultimate claims, then religions cannot be true to themselves if limits are placed on them beforehand. Within the boundaries of Egyptian society, the Israelites were not free to offer all things to God, without reserve. Their enslavement meant their freedom to worship was limited, and therefore worship was not fully possible.

Moses makes the unlimited nature of worship clear to Pharaoh when the latter, after no small amount of pressure, finally agrees to allowing the children to go with the adults into the wilderness to worship, but refuses to allow the Israelites to take their livestock with them. Pharaoh is undoubtedly fearful that if this people were to take everything with them when they go out to worship then they may not return, and he desires above all else to retain control over his workforce. Moses’ response reveals that the need to take everything with them is not for the purpose of permanent evacuation but, rather, because the possibility of worship depends upon the willingness to offer whatever is asked of them: “we shall not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there,” (Ex 10:25, JPS). Now as then, the state cannot prescribe what may or may not be offered in religious worship: that determination is left within the domain of religion alone.

The space for worship is the freedom to make everything available in service of a religion’s ultimate claim. For the Israelites in Egypt, that freedom meant bringing the whole people and everything they possessed into the wilderness so that they could offer anything or even everything to God. For religions within pluralistic societies today—and perhaps for Catholic Christians in the United States especially—this freedom entails not just the freedom to offer private acts to God, but also public activities. Works of charity which are both expressive and formative of specifically Catholic religious identity forms institutional bonds and cannot be reduced to only the private sphere.  The twin commandments of love of God and love of neighbor are secured in the person of Jesus Christ, for whom total openness to God is united to the total openness to those whose humanity he shared. This bond is formed in associations as well as among individual persons. The space of worship in Christ is thus the whole of the Christian life: the boundary between public and private must be porous. That is the essence of the freedom to worship as established in relation to Moses, the Israelites, and their God.

The right to the free exercise and expression of religion is what the second clause of the First Amendment protects: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment does not banish religion from civil society; rather, it protects religion as something free from the state’s control within civil society, while also (in the first clause) protecting the exercises of the state from undue coercion on the part of any particular religion. Moreover, the state retains the right and the duty to intervene when persons or peoples are persecuted or subject to acts of violence, even in the name of religion. In this way, the state checks religions for the sake of preserving the health of civil society, or, as Pope Francis said, the state protects “the need of people to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation,” (Speech to Congress).

In a liberal democracy, the space for worship can and should be allowed within the space of civil society. Under a dictatorship, this space for worship can only be secured outside the state. This is what separates the United States, for example, from Pharaoh’s Egypt. Despite this difference, the demand is the same: “Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness,” (Ex 7:16, JPS). Only those lands in which space is reserved within for the free exercise of religion are truly free lands. 

In telling the story of the United States from within the historical memory of the American People, Pope Francis, with a voice full of gracious appreciation, challenged us to remember that our Constitution protects the space of this wilderness within the civil society. Religious communities need not separate from civil society in order to be free from the state because the state is called to restrict itself from legislating on religious matters. In exchange, religious people can influence the state, though no religion may control the state. This mutual restriction of the state and of religion allows for plurality in civil society, which is indeed healthy for the society itself. Under a dictatorial regime like that of Pharaoh, there is no space for plurality and, therefore, no possibility for Thomas Merton to ripen as a fruit of liberty. For just as Merton sought the open wilderness within the world through a life of contemplation that led to dialogue, so too do religions themselves seek the boundless wilderness within the boundaries of civil society.