The Truly Catholic Vision of Religious Freedom

Capitol Fireworks – July 4, 2012 (Washington, DC)

Today’s post from Bondings 2.0, On the USCCB’s Fifth (And Hopefully Final) “Fortnight For Freedom”, prompted me to re-read Dignitatis Humanae [DH], the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. After all, if the bishops or others think that religious liberty and the free exercise of religion are under attack in the US, one would think we should be looking to this important document for guidance.

DH clearly and strongly promotes the rights of individuals and social groups to “… to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

The bishops’ concern that religious persons and institutions might be forced by the government to act in a way that is coercive and violates their “own beliefs” clearly finds some support here. However, that nasty 3-word phrase at the end puts a different slant on things: “within due limits.” Several times DH references the “just order of society” and the “due limits” on one’s religious freedom. Perhaps the clearest statement is in Article 7, which begins:

“The right to religious freedom is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men [sic ]and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all. Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility.”

While the bishops and other “religious freedom” advocates look with limited vision to the US Constitution, they seem to have forgotten the teachings of their own Tradition. DH reminds us of the “due limits” and “regulatory norms” which a just and civil society must enact to ensure the “rights of others” are respected. The bishops’ original concern related to healthcare, though quickly was extended to the area of LGBT rights. The US Supreme Court has decided to hear a case from Colorado about the refusal by the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Jack Phillips, to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Phillips cited his disapproval of same-sex marriage, which he claims to be rooted in his Christian faith, as the reason.

From a Catholic teaching perspective, it’d be quite a stretch to say that the baking of a wedding cake rises to the level of a “religious act” worthy of protection. If it did, then where would it end? In theory, no end would be in sight. After all, any religious person who takes faith seriously would try to express his/her religious values in all aspect of life, right? If that’s true, what’s to stop said religious person from hiding behind such “religious freedom protections” for any and all acts in which he engages?

As the bishops of Vatican II rightly recognized, civil society has the obligation to impose due limits and appropriate regulatory norms on the exercise of religious freedom. Such limits and norms must respect the rights of ALL citizens. As we celebrate today 241 years of independence from political tyranny, may we be always strive to be free from tyranny of all stripes, even when wrapped in red, white and blue.

 

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