Everyone must be true to their own conscience, a religious freedom advocate and former political prisoner told a gala audience on Thursday.
“Even when we have nothing, each person and only that person possesses the key to his or her own conscience, his or her own sacred castle,” Armando Valladares, a former prisoner of conscience in Cuban prisons, said upon reception of the 2016 Canterbury Medal bestowed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty May 12.
“In that respect, each of us, though we may not have an earthly castle or even a house, each of us is richer than a king or queen,” he continued.
Valladares, who spent 22 years in prison for refusing to support the communist government in Cuba, received the 2016 Canterbury Medal, given for “courage in defense of religious liberty.” Past medal recipients include Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, former Ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson, and Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
The annual gala in New York City is attended by religious leaders and prominent religious freedom advocates. Gala chairs included Sister Loraine Marie Macguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
In his speech, Valladares recounted of how he was sent to prison at the age of 23 for refusing to display a placard of support for Fidel Castro at his post office desk. He ended up imprisoned for not supporting the Castro regime; eight of those years he spent naked, in solitary confinement.
To display the placard “I’m with Fidel” would have been “a type of spiritual suicide,” he said.
He later penned a memoir of his prison time, “Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag.” In prison, Valladares wrote poetry — even using his own blood as ink — and painted. His writings and art were smuggled out of prison and later publicized by his wife, who advocated for his release.
In one of his poems that he recited in a Becket Fund video, he wrote: “They’ve taken everything away from me, or almost everything. I still have my smile, the proud sense that I’m a free man, and an eternally flowering garden in my soul. They’ve taken everything away from me: pens, pencils, but I still have life’s ink, my own blood, and I’m still writing poems with that.”
“Even though my body was in prison and being tortured, my soul was free and it flourished. My jailers took everything away from me, but they could not take away my conscience or my faith,” he said in his speech.
The Little Sisters of the Poor — who currently have a case against the federal government before the Supreme Court — are making a similar stand for their own freedom of conscience, he said.
Facing the threat of heavy fines, the sisters have refused to obey the government’s mandate that employers provide coverage for employees for contraceptives, sterilizations, and drugs that can cause early abortions, which they say would be cooperation with grave evil.
The administration announced an “accommodation” for the sisters and other objecting non-profits — they would simply notify the government of their religious objection to providing contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans, and the government would direct the insurer to provide the coverage at a separate cost, but within the existing health plan’s infrastructure.
However, the sisters and other non-profits said that even notifying the government of their objection would still involve them acting as gatekeepers facilitating access to contraception, since the consequences of their action would still be providing coverage for morally objectionable drugs and practices.
“They may be called the Little Sisters of the Poor, and yet they are rich in that they live out their conscience, which no government bureaucrat can invade,” Valladares said.
“They know what my body knows after 22 years of cruel torture: that if they sign the form, the government demands they will be violating their conscience and would commit spiritual suicide. If they did this they would forfeit the true and only wealth they have in abandoning the castle of their consciences.
“And so I salute the Little Sisters of the Poor for their seemingly small act of defiance!”
Everyone is called to “bear witness to the truth,” he continued, even if their action is small. He himself was just an “ordinary” man. “But God chose me for something quite extraordinary,” he added.
Valladares exhorted the audience members to stay true to their consciences, and that even if they are persecuted for their beliefs, “you are never alone because God is there with you.”
“Thank you for this award,” he concluded. “I accept it in the name of the thousands of Cubans that used their last breath to express their own religious freedom, by shouting, as they faced execution: 'Long Live Christ the King’.”