Religious Freedom: The Bigger Picture

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. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.