The Truly Catholic Vision of Religious Freedom

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 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.


Benedict, Nuns, Christians…and “freedom” to proclaim the Gospel

In his daily meditation for today (April 24, 2012), Franciscan Fr. Richar Rohr writes:

I am not denying that Jesus could and undoubtedly did physical healing. It still happens, and I have seen it, but the healings and exorcisms in Mark’s Gospel are primarily to make statements about power, abuse, relationships, class, addiction, money, the state of women and the poor, and the connections between soul and body—the exact same issues that we face today. [emphasis added]

Just as Jesus’ actions made statements about those parts of the world in need of healing, so have the actions of many of his followers. In the United States, religious women — sisters and nuns (there is a difference, by the way!) — for more than two centuries have been at the heart and forefront of two of the most important activities of any society:  Education and Healthcare.  Communities of religious women have founded hospitals and clinics and hospices; they have opened schools and colleges and universities. And while they have ministered to people across the social spectrum, they typically would be willing to serve where others would dare not tread.

Even Pope Benedict XVI has praised the historic role of women in building the Church in America.  Just yesterday, the pope noted that two women from this continent will be canonized later this year — Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and Blessed Mother Marianne Cope.

While recalling the historic role of women in the Church in the United States, the pope notably did not praise the current role played by so many tens of thousands of women religious in the daily lives of hospitals, schools, parishes and communities across this land.  Instead, he gave voice to that growing canard that the bishops of the US have latched on to, i.e. the notion that the “freedom” of religion is somehow under attack.  In concluding his speech to some visiting Americans, Benedict stated:

In these days I ask your continued prayers for the needs of the universal Church and in particular for the freedom of Christians to proclaim the Gospel and bring its light to the urgent moral issues of our time.

I don’t know where the Pope gets his information, though given the Vatican’s recent actions regarding congregations of women religious in the US (see coverage in US Catholic for one perspective), I suspect it’s not from very good sources. Concerning religious freedom, however, I’ve yet to see any roadblocks put forth hindering the proclamation of the Gospel or the light it sheds on the “moral issues of our time.”  What the Pope fails to understand is that his voice and the voices of his brother bishops are not the only voices empowered to proclaim the Gospel. The voices of religious women and men, of priests and lay people, all the Baptized together have a right and responsibility to proclaim the Gospel in both word and — like Jesus in Mark’s Gospel — in action. At times, those voices will differ as we collectively discern “the signs of the times” and struggle to understand where and how God’s Spirit might be leading us here and now.

Benedict rightly notes that “Christians” (he didn’t limit this to the hierarchy!) have the freedom to proclaim the Gospel.  I pray that he and his brother bishops will listen to the voices of Christians doing just that, even when what they have to say might not be what Benedict wants to hear!