Earlier in November, the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame hosted a conference on the current global persecution of Christians. Archbishop Vigano, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, was the keynote speaker. (Additional presentations available.) Here's his excellent, accurate, and unapologetic talk (and as PDF):
Here's his thesis (italic text indicates quotation from the PDF linked above): [I]t is crucial to see that in the world of the present age, persecution of the faithful can manifest itself in a variety of forms, some obvious, but others less so. While it is necessary to remind ourselves of the obvious, we must also consider the not-so-obvious, for great danger to the future of religious freedom lies with religious persecution that appears inconsequential or seems benign but in fact is not. (emphasis added)
In this talk, he separates the interrelated ideas of martyrdom, persecution, and religious freedom. Martyrdom, he notes, depends on two things: the fidelity of the believer who refuses to compromise the demands of the faith, and the intention of the persecutor: [T]he intention underlying the objectives of the persecutor is important to understand: it was to eradicate the public witness to Jesus Christ and His Church. An accompanying objective can be the incapacitation of the faith by enticing people to renounce their beliefs, or at least their public manifestations, rather than undergo great hardships that will be, or can be, applied if believers persist in their resistance to apostasy. The plan is straightforward: if the faith persists, so will the hardships. (emphasis added) He also notes that the "hardships" can be not only legal or physical, but also social (ridicule, social isolation, marginalization).
Persecution is a slightly larger set of actions than those that end in martyrdom: Persecution is typically associated with the deeds preceding those necessary to make martyrs for the faith. While acts of persecution can mirror those associated with martyrdom, other elements can be directed to sustaining difficulty, annoyance, and harassment that are designed to frustrate the beliefs of the targeted person or persons rather than to eliminate these persons. It would seem, then, that the objective of persecution is to remove from the public square the beliefs themselves and the public manifestations without necessarily eliminating the persons who hold the beliefs. The victimization may not be designed to destroy the believer but only the belief and its open manifestations. From the public viewpoint, the believer remains but the faith eventually disappears. (emphasis added) This is just the same distinction between "public" and "private" faith that we are seeing, as an attempt to change the meaning of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion (i.e., limiting it to freedom of worship only, but not freedom of practice of all the moral consequences of that worship).
In opposition to martyrdom and persecution, Religious freedom is the exercise of fidelity to God and His Holy Church without compromise. He rightly makes the classic distinction, best made by St. Augustine in the "City of God," between the "two cities" of God and of man: At the core of this fidelity is the desire to be a good citizen of the two cities where we all live: the City of Man and the City of God. Baptism makes us citizens of the City of God, but we remain "sojourners" in the world. Worldly justice, then, requires making the worldly city resemble more (it will never do so perfectly) the true freedom and true justice of the heavenly city. Freedom of religion, then, is simply that set of attitude and priorities, enshrined into positive law to the extent necessary, that allows one to be "good citizens" of both cities at the same time. Without religious freedom, the inherent difference between the two cities results in opposition, hostility, and therefore persecution and martyrdom.
Abp Vigano puts his finger right on this point: The problem of persecution begins with this reluctance to accept the public role of religion in these affairs, especially but not always when the protection of religious freedom involves beliefs that the powerful of the political society do not share. This is precisely the heart of the issue. A secular worldview assumes that religion is, in itself, problematic for the "city of man." It rejects that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, ought to influence the culture, the laws, the State, etc., in the direction of "resembling more" Christ's true freedom and true justice. Thus, the more forceful or radical the secular view, the more it is at odds with the Church; the less it can value religious freedom (replacing it with mere "freedom of worship" and vacuous "toleration"), and the more likely it is to persecute Christians, even to the point of martyrdom.
Abp Vigano lists several current examples of that sort of persecution, not yet to the point of martyrdom, and builds to this crescendo: An Englishman who found his way to the United States, Christopher Dawson (who became a Catholic in his early adulthood) still reminds us that the modern state, even the democratic one, can exert all kinds of pressure on authentic religious freedom. Dawson insightfully explained that the modern democratic state can join the totalitarian one in not being satisfied with “passive obedience” when “it demands full cooperation from the cradle to the grave.” He identified the challenges that secularism and secular societies can impose on Christians which surface on the cultural and the political levels. Dawson thus warned that “if Christians cannot assert their right to exist” then “they will eventually be pushed not only out of modern culture, but out of physical existence.” He acknowledged that this was not only a problem in the totalitarian and non-democratic states, but “it will also become the issue in England and America if we do not use our opportunities while we still have them.” (citing Christopher Dawson, “The Challenge of Secularism”, Catholic World (1956); emphasis added)
He then cites the same point made by Pope John Paul II in Christifideles Laici (1988) and Centesimus Annus (1991), and concludes very strongly: We are still a far cry from fully embracing the Holy Father’s encouraging exhortation [i.e. Christifideles Laici] when we witness in an unprecedented way a platform being assumed by a major political party, having intrinsic evils among its basic principles, and Catholic faithful publicly supporting it. There is a divisive strategy at work here, an intentional dividing of the Church; through this strategy, the body of the Church is weakened, and thus the Church can be more easily persecuted. His last two paragraphs are an exhortation to resist this division, remain united to the life-giving vine that is Christ, and to protect religious freedom by living the Faith deeply and authentically in every area of our life.
Update (11/28) - The Holy Father touched on the theme of making the city of man resemble more the city of God, in his Wednesday audience today. His approach is that of evangelization: Speaking about God, therefore, means enabling others to understand
through words and acts that God is not a competitor in our existence but
rather its true guarantor, the guarantor of the greatness of the human
person. Thus we return to the beginning: speaking about God means
communicating, with power and simplicity, through words and the life we
lead, that which is essential: the God of Jesus Christ, the God Who
showed us a love so great that He took on human flesh, died and rose
again for us; the God Who asks us to follow Him and to allow ourselves
to be transformed by His immense love in order to renew our lives and
our relationships; the God Who gave us the Church, to allow us to
journey together and, through the Word and the Sacraments, to renew the
entire City of Man so that it might become the City of God. Anthony Esolen also had a relevant article in Crisis Magazine recently.