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Why Religious Freedom Matters

 

Four years ago, the bishops of the United States inaugurated the “Fortnight for Freedom” as a time for Catholics throughout the county to unite in prayer and become better educated about the importance of religious liberty. The word fortnight may seem an antiquated term and I only recognized it as a tennis fan as a descriptor of Wimbledon. The Fortnight for Freedom takes place over two weeks – from June 21st, the Vigil of the Feast of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, to July 4th, our Independence Day. I don’t think it is possible to overstate the importance of religious freedom to the health of our nation. Below, I present Church teaching regarding religious liberty and explain why our vigilance regarding this freedom is critical from both a Catholic and American perspective.

 

In the document Dignitatis Humanae (from Vatican II) the Catholic Church affirmedthat the human person possesses a right to religious freedom and a corresponding right to freedom of conscience. Both of these rights are natural rights in that they are attendant to our human nature and thus have God as their source. The rights of religious liberty and freedom of conscience flow from the dignity of the human person and are essential to a life of integral development and moral goodness. Religious freedom is critical for the pursuit of truth, a duty of the human person, and also allows religious communities the necessary freedom to carry out their respective missions. In all of these ways, religious freedom serves the common good by increasing and strengthening the societal conditions which bring about human flourishing.

 

Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI taught consistently and persuasively about the critical need to safeguard and promote religious freedom for the well-being of society. Both of these men saw the devastation and carnage that resulted from the totalitarian regimes that ruled in their youth. When the state grasps all power, suppresses freedom, and inhibits the role of religion in society, God’s sovereignty and truth are obscured and the surpassing dignity of the human person devalued. History attests to the resulting horrors of not vigilantly protecting liberty, especially religious freedom. These wise popes referred to religious freedom as a first freedom because it goes to the constitutive dimension of the human person: our origin; our raison d’etre; and our goal. By faith, we know that God is the source of all life and meaning and thus, it is imperative that civil society respects the freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

 

Our Founding Fathers understood the importance of religious freedom to the well-being and future of the nation. In many ways, the value and pursuit of religious freedom were the impetus for the birth of our nation. Like Catholic teaching, the Founders knew that religious freedom was a natural right (i.e. inalienable) given by God and attendant to our created nature. There was a strong understanding among them that religious freedom is not given by the state to be limited at will. Rather, religious freedom is temporally (in time) prior to the state and in some notable ways can provide a check on the power of the state as well as a wise guide for the laws, policy, and actions within the nation. In addition, the Founding Fathers encouraged a vital role for religion in society because they understood that religion helps teach and promote virtue among the citizenry. It is also noteworthy that both religion clauses of the First Amendment were aimed not at promoting a strict separation of church and state, but at protecting religious liberty. From a Catholic and American perspective, religious liberty and the freedom of conscience are critical to the just ordering of society and the promotion of the common good. If this is the case, as I and others believe, why is there such apathy among Christians and other people of faith regarding religious freedom? John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America, suggests that apathy regarding the diminution of religious freedom corresponds to the rise of secularism and decline of religious practice among Americans. Garvey uses the example of St. Thomas More as a man whose lively faith provided him the foundation to follow his conscience and give his life. While this type of religious faith is rare and while Americans disagree about the proper role of religion in society, hopefully a consensus will emerge among people of good will that a healthy American pluralism includes the right to believe and live according to one’s conscience.  

 

It would seem clear that as our Catholic parishes form missionary disciples who love Christ, greater vigilance regarding religious liberty will follow. Perhaps we are apathetic regarding religious freedom because we have not yet suffered the effects of its privation. The day may soon be coming when we will more fully grasp its importance. Whether it is the consequences of the redefinition of marriage or other threats to religious freedom, we must remain vigilant.  Notwithstanding these potential threats, there are signs of hope for those cherish religious freedom in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case and most recently in its Trinity Lutheran Church case. In season and out of season, Catholics are called to joyfully live the Gospel by promoting the truth about religious freedom, by uniting in prayer, and by vigilant defense of the God-given right to believe and live according to our conscience. St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, pray for us.


Father Daniel Griffith