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Religious Freedom: The Bigger Picture Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Thursday, 28 June 2012

Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare today, some serious questions about religious liberty will remain. Much of the discussion during this Fortnight for Freedom has been geared toward the political sphere. And rightly so. The constitutional right of Catholics to exercise their religion is being threatened by the very government that was established to uphold it. Politics issued this challenge to the Church, and to weather the storm without compromising basic moral principles, the Church must fight – and win – on the political front.

The bishops’ statement on religious liberty that announced the Fortnight campaign – discussed earlier at this site – is one retaliatory shot among many in this political battle. It aims to capture the political center by presenting a cogent argument about the importance of religious liberty for Americans and for America. As such, the statement does not draw upon revelation or theological argument.

But since the current Fortnight is dedicated to study in addition to prayer and witness, it is worthwhile for Catholics to consider the purpose of religious freedom and why it is worth fighting for. Simply put, our salvation depends on how well (or not) we freely exercise our faith.

The Catechism defines freedom as “the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility.” (1731) This understanding of freedom, repeated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is not, as is commonly assumed, freedom from any and all limits imposed by an external force. Properly understood, freedom exists for action, so that one may pursue the good of his or her choice. Freedom is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.

Religious freedom, by extension, is also a means to an end, although it tends to be discussed even by the bishops and by Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae as an end in itself. The latter document, not without reason, defines religious freedom (in line with modernity) as a freedom from:

Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the parts of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others. (2)

Only in the following paragraph is the purpose of religious freedom briefly stated: “The practice of religion of its very nature consists primarily of those voluntary and free internal acts by which a man directs himself to God.” (3)

Eternal life with God, begun in the here and now and fulfilled in the next life, is the very purpose of our existence, and the Catholic faith was revealed by God as a free gift to help us reach Him. If freedom in general is the power to act or not, then religious freedom is the power to choose God or to reject Him.

Impediments to religious freedom threaten our ability “to work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” – hence, the emphasis on freedom from external coercion against our beliefs in Dignitatis Humanae and the present Fortnight campaign. But the from exists to facilitate a far greater for. Religious freedom is more than a matter of life or death: it is a matter of eternal life or eternal death.

This is no rhetorical exaggeration. Owing to doubts about religious knowledge and false definitions of tolerance, we have dismissed the role that religion plays in salvation: What does it matter what one believes, we rationalize, so long as he or she is a “good person?” This fits the Obama administration’s strategy of reducing the “free exercise of religion” to “freedom of worship” – in other words, “Believe whatever you like. It doesn’t matter – so long as you do what we, the government, say.”

For Catholics, what we believe cannot be separated from how we act. The former shapes the latter. Christ promised salvation for those who believe in Him, and belief in Him requires keeping His commandments and selflessly loving others, feats best made possible by the teachings and sacramental grace mediated by the Church.

Actions by the government, society, or other external factors that force Catholics to violate God’s created order, no matter how trivial they may seem, simply cannot be accepted since they contradict and prevent our very reason for living: reaching union with God.

Inside the Beltway, the state capitols, and the courtrooms, the defense of religious freedom should and must follow the course set forth by the bishops: to present a compelling case why religious liberty is necessary for the health of our citizens and our nation.

But let’s remember that, in the pews, this battle is far more than political. It’s a battle to protect our path to God “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4) This is the purpose of religious freedom, a cause for which we may have to die so that we may live forever.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.
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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Manfred, June 28, 2012
Freedom of religion is an American concept from earliest times which was necessitated by the fact that so many early settlers were members of creeds and sects which began in England who had left not only Catholicism, but more importantly to them, Anglicanism. The English king was also the head of the Anglican church. At the time of the American Revolution, American Anglicans took the name Episcopalians from episcopos=overseer as they did not recognize the pope. The Founding Fathgers knew two important things about this newly founded Country and its government: it was peculiar to the people of that time and it could not be exported, and religion was critical as only by having citizens with God-fearing consciences would this experiment work. Otherwise the society would devolve into viciousness. That is why Freedom of Religion (NOT "worship" as the Obama people insist)is the very first of the Amendments and guaranteed by what is left of the Constitution. There is no tradition of Freedom of Religion in Catholicism as only Catholicism is TRUE. This is what the SSPX reminds us almost every day.
written by Jon S., June 28, 2012
Thank you, Professor Bonagura. Could one of the insightful contributors to TCT write a column on the rightful limits of religious freedom? I have sharia specifically in mind. When, according to right Reason and orthodox Catholicism, does a democratic society have a right or an obligation to limit the practice of religion?
written by Chris, June 28, 2012
"Simply put, our salvation depends on how well (or not) we freely exercise our faith." I suppose that's why Jesus and St. Peter worked so diligently to reform the Roman government, right? (that was sarcasm). I'm no fan of the HHS mandate on contraception either, but we need to stop talking like our divine inheritance is in any way dependent on earthly despots. We are not the first generation of believers to have our practices challenged by the government. The Church survived ancient Rome, the Goths, Communist Russia, and Communist China. She will survive America also.
written by Athanasius, June 28, 2012
Jon S., Here is how I see appropriate government limit to religious freedom: Religious freedom should be extended to all acts that conform to reason as informed by the Natural Law. This is consistent with the Catechism definition cited above saying "rooted in reason". In other words, faith goes beyond reason but never contradicts it, so actions that are claimed to be observant of faith must also be reasonable. Faith gives reason meaning, but reason keeps faith honest. This way of thinking will prevent much of what Catholics would find objectionable in sharia, such as burkas and honor killing. It also prevents charlatans who would say some nonsense such as, "God commanded me to rape teenagers." The reason I include "as informed by the Natural Law" is that while it is not self-evident that the Trinitarian God exists, natural reason can lead to a reasonable belief that there is a perfect, just, and eternal lawgiver (see St. Thomas Aquinas' five proofs), and so all man-made laws must seek this divine truth rather than simply seek a secular majority. The Natural Law leads to "right makes might" while a secular majority leads to "might makes right".
written by David Bonagura, June 28, 2012
Manfred, freedom of religion as we understand it today stems from the American experiment, and you correctly describe the history of its development here. I am writing to address the situation in America today, not to give a treatise on religious liberty in general. I am aware of the SSPX objection. Their quarrel is not with the general principle that I outline here: that one's beliefs should not be coerced by an external force. They object to allowing and protecting the expression of "false religion" in public, a topic for another day.

Jon S., Athanasius gives a good rule of thumb for determining what one may pursue justly under the umbrella of religious freedom. A religious group that demanded human sacrifice, for example, can and must be stopped by legitimate government authority. Religion cannot command one, nor serve as a cover for one, to act against the natural law.

Chris, I think you missed the rhetorical spin in the sentence you quoted. Our salvation depends on how well we live our faith--pray, keep the commandments, love God and neighbor. These are the ways we "freely exercise" our faith.

written by Gian, June 29, 2012
The freedom of religion can not be absolute but contextual, depending upon the history and circumstances of a particular society.
Thus the Americans were right to persecute Mormons for practicing polygamy that would have been unobjectionable in a Middle East society . Thus Hindus are partly justified in banning cow slaughter in their lands though it impinges on the freedom of other people to eat beef.

It is also partly the reason male circumcision is not objected to in America while female circumcision is. Whereas the Orientals view male circumcision with equal horror.
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