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Religious Freedom: Gift and Challenge

Athenaeum of Ohio

I. Introduction

A. Thank you for your kind introduction and for your gracious welcome. I am a native of New Albany, Indiana, some 90 miles downstream on the Ohio River; and I just want you to know that, growing up in the land of the Louisville Slugger, I rooted for the Cincinnati Reds . . . I imagine that’s the main reason I was invited!

B. As was noted, I served as Bishop of Bridgeport, CT from 2001 until 2012. During that time I met and worked with some excellent public officials and with my fellow bishops we strove to create a harmonious relationship with state and local government. But in 2009, the Church faced a significant religious freedom challenge. Catholics were surprised when legislation was proposed to reorganize our parishes. In essence, this bill would have sidelined the pastor from parish administration and instead mandated that this function be done by an elected committee of laity. In this plan also, the bishop would have been merely a figurehead. Both clergy and laity quickly mobilized against this bill. A large rally was held on the steps of the capitol, and happily, the bill was withdrawn.

C. Well, the song ended but the melody lingered on. It seemed clear that we could no longer take religious freedom for granted. So I decided to write a pastoral letter on religious freedom, and in the meantime, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops received reports of religious freedom challenges from various bishops in United States. As a result, the bishops decided to make the defense of religious freedom a priority and established the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty which I currently chair, as a means of teaching about religious freedom and as a way of focusing the bishops’ efforts to protect our first and fundamental liberty.

D. In light of this experience, I’d like to discuss religious liberty as gift and challenge, and to do so, by looking through the lens of Dignitatis Humanae, (Of Human Dignity) the Declaration on Religious Liberty of the II Vatican Council – issued on December 7th, 1965, nearly 51 years ago. To be sure, the world has changed dramatically during the past five decades, yet the teaching in this declaration is more important and necessary than ever. We live in times when the preciousness and fragility of the gift of religious freedom are put in sharp relief by the challenges at home and abroad. So thank for the opportunity to discuss something near and dear to my heart.

E. The plan for this talk is simple: first I will offer a summary of the basic ideas in the Declaration; then, briefly review a number of challenges to religious freedom noting how they are addressed in Dignitatis Humanae; finally, I will offer a few suggestions on how we might respond to such challenges, so as to foster and advance religious freedom at home and abroad.

II. Cliffs Notes on Dignitatis Humanae: Three Preliminary Questions

A. Let me begin with basic teachings in Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council, if you will, a Cliffs Notes version of that document. (If you don’t mind, I’ll refer to that document by its initials “DH” for the remainder of my talk; it may go easier on your ears.) Let’s begin with three preliminary questions and then move to three content questions that will help guide us in understanding this important council document

B. First, let’s ask if the Church had ever spoken about religious freedom prior to the Second Vatican Council and the answer is “yes”. For example, in the late 19th century Pope Leo XIII championed the Church’s freedom with the rise of antireligious ideologies such as Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. So also, Pope Pius XI defended the Church’s religious freedom against the totalitarian governments in Europe in the 20’s and 30’s. His successor, Pope Pius XII likewise defended the Church’s liberty as well as the rights and freedoms of the victims of World War II.

C. That said, DH is the first official Church document solely on religious freedom, and it marks the first time an ecumenical council dealt with it. Why, then, did the Council decide to take up this subject? Let me speculate! In the late 1950’s the memory of World War II was fresh, especially the atrocities committed against Jews and Catholics in the Holocaust. Religious freedom was all but denied to many who lived behind the Iron Curtain. Secularism and atheism were on the rise – for example, the 1966 cover of Time magazine was emblazoned with the words: “IS GOD DEAD?”. At the same time, the American experiment of religious freedom was working well, even as developing countries were yearning for freedom, including religious freedom. In convoking the II Vatican Council Pope John XXIII proposed to bring the Church into closer contact with the conflicts and yearnings of a global culture by looking more deeply into her own Tradition so as “to read the signs of the times and interpret them in light of the Gospel” (GS, 4).

D. Second, the proposal for a document on religious freedom was controversial. Why did some in the Church oppose it and on what grounds? I think it’s fair to say that most of the opposition came from countries where the Catholic Church had been the established church, e.g., Spain and Italy. Some also opposed the early drafts of the document on religious freedom on the grounds that “error has no rights” – to paraphrase Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. They were concerned it would lead to religious indifferentism. In defending the religious freedom of all people and of all religions was the Church surrendering her claim to the fullness of truth or saying, in effect, that one religious faith is as good as another? Fortunately, that was not the case, as we shall see when we look at the content of DH.

E. Let us ask one more question before we get into the actual content of the document. Were there developments in Catholic thought that paved the way for the declaration on religious freedom? … & indeed there were! The 20th century produced some of the most brilliant minds in the Church’s history, whose groundbreaking work contributed greatly to the II Vatican Council. One area of development was a fuller, more theological account of human dignity. Of course, the Church had always taught that human life is inviolable, that we are made in God’s image and can know God’s existence even without faith. But some 20th century thinkers went further. Retrieving the teaching of Scripture and early Christian writers they focused on the desire for God in the depths of the human person. They saw this innate desire for God as the basis of human dignity. By dint of being human, each person has an in-built relatedness to God, in spite of original sin and even prior to Baptism, or any religious commitment. So, it’s not just our brains and our thumbs that set us apart from the rest of creation but rather a universal, in-born aspiration for a love and a life that is infinite. Thus, human dignity is transcendent in its source and summit, namely God. Human rights and dignity are not granted by any earthly power but are God’s gift. That is why the first words of DH are “dignitatis humanae” – “of human dignity”.

III. Cliffs Notes on Dignitatis Humanae cont’d.: Questions on Content

Let’s move on to the content of DH and here too let me pose three questions: A. First is this: How does the document understand religious freedom? As you know, the word “freedom” has many meanings. For example, it often means “freedom of choice” – in this case – the freedom to choose one religion over another or no religion at all. DH, however, describes religious freedom as much more than mere freedom of choice.

1) The first description of religious freedom in DH is freedom from coercion: Declaring that the human person has a right to religious freedom, DH goes on to say: “Such freedom consists in this, that all…should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups or any human power, so that no one is forced to act against his conscience in religious matters, or prevented from acting according to his conscience in private or in public, whether alone or with others, within due limits” (DH, no. 1).

2) This account of religious freedom owes a lot to the American experience. It was championed by an American theologian, Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. who was an advisor to various American bishops at Vatican II. In describing religious freedom as “freedom from coercion” Fr. Murray was borrowing from the American experiment of limited government. Thanks to its Constitution and Bill of Rights, the American government declared itself “incompetent” to deal with specifically religious matters, absent a compelling interest. In other words, the government will not take positions about religious matters but instead will give religious individuals and bodies wide latitude and will only intervene for a very serious reason involving the overall good of society. The task of government is not to foster religious values or practice but simply to protect religious people and institutions from undue constraints. That said, Murray also believed that government should recognize that religion has a role to play in human flourishing. Indeed the success of the American experiment, Murray contended, depended both on civility and a consensus about the role of morality and religion in society.

3) Murray championed this view of religious freedom for two reasons: First, he believed that the American experiment gave the Church a model for advocating the spread of religious freedom throughout the world. Our history is by no means perfect with regard to religious freedom, yet Murray believed the state’s neutrality about religion had brought about peaceful relationships between Church and State. He described the protections afforded by the First Amendment as “articles of peace”, and contrasted the American experience with that of many other countries where there was (and is) religious persecution and repression. Second, Murray believed that the concept of religious freedom as ‘freedom from coercion” worked better in pluralistic societies which allow for broad freedoms of speech and expression. This concept enables such societies to recognize religious freedom as a universal right, common to people of differing religious persuasions or none at all. Indeed, the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights takes such a position.

4) Of course, it was no easy task to insert such a view into a church document. Here again many believed that Murray’s view would lead to religious indifferentism, that is, the view that one religion is as good as another. And what if the moral consensus, on which this ‘neutral’ view of religious freedom hinges, breaks down? Would a society torn apart by competing moral and religious claims set the stage for the government’s refereeing those claims? To be sure, Murray did not believe in religious indifference or moral relativism. He wrote clearly on our personal obligations to pursue the truth but felt that a neutral or juridical approach to religious liberty was the best approach from the perspective of constitutional order, laws, and public policy.

5) This notion of religious freedom as the absence of or immunity from coercion was included in DH but it was not the last word. The Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla allied with a number of French bishops challenged Murray’s notion of religious freedom, not because it was wrong but because they thought it was incomplete. As we saw in preliminary question # 3, Wojtyla and others were encouraging the Council to adopt in DH and elsewhere a more profoundly theological account of human dignity. A merely neutral view of religious freedom, emptied of all content, does not fully take into account the transcendence of the human person, made by God in his likeness and endowed with reason and free will. But it is precisely in human transcendence, this in-built orientation toward the divine, that all human rights and freedoms have their origin. When religious freedom is linked to the human search for truth and for God, we can see more readily that God, not the state, grants our basic freedoms; when religious freedom is thought of as the mere absence of coercion, we can see how a government might claim to be not just the guarantor but the grantor of religious freedom and other basic rights.

6) Wojtyla and his allies greatly influenced the final shape of DH. While acknowledging the duty of the state not to interfere with religion, DH roots religious liberty in human nature: “In addition, this Council declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person known from both the revealed word of God and reason itself” (DH, 2). The text goes on to say, “It is in accord with their dignity that all men and women, because they are persons, endowed with reason and free will and thus privileged with personal responsibility, are impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially the truth concerning religion” (DH, 2). Thus, DH teaches the right to religious freedom is founded not merely in personal views and preferences but in human nature itself (cf. DH, 2).

7) Archbishop Wojtyla, Bishop Ancel (from France) and others thus made explicit the link between religious freedom and truth – as the future Pope John Paul II said – “Non datur libertas sine veritate” – “there is no liberty without truth”. There is no liberty unless the full truth about the human person and the in-built orientation of the human person toward God is acknowledged. Liberty respects the obligation of the human person, rooted in his very nature, to seek for the truth with regard to morality and religion. Any government and any society that would protect religious freedom must also respect the truth about human transcendence and must encourage its citizens to seek for moral and religious truth. Any society that seeks to be just must respect the obligation of the human person to search for moral and religious truth and must indeed encourage that search as a societal good.

8) When Wojtyla argued for the link between religious freedom and truth, he was drawing on his depth as a philosopher and a theologian but also on his experience of living in a country where the full truth about the human person was eclipsed by the overarching claims of a totalitarian state. But he also knew that secular democratic states could eclipse human dignity absent any fixed moral truths rooted in human nature. For when basic truths about human dignity, morality, and justice are up for grabs, then they are grabbed by the powerful who proceed to impose their views on others, the stronger, the more powerful, the more influential on the weaker.

9) Let me add another point. DH says that religious freedom is to be fostered & protected “within due limits”. Some said that this phrase pertained to whatever “public order” might demand. Wojtyla, however, cautioned against accepting too readily limitations on religious freedom for the sake of public order. He knew only too well that public order claims could be expansive, even dominant. He ensured that DH would take a more nuanced view. Any limits on religious liberty for the common good should be rooted, he said, in the requirements of the natural moral law, the law of God written on our hearts, known by reason but understood more fully in the light of divine revelation. Religious freedom is violated when a government constrains individuals and religious groups from following the natural law. In an era of government regulations opposed to the natural moral law, the future Pope’s words seem prophetic.

B. I’ve lingered over DH’s understanding of religious freedom because it’s the heart of the document, so now, let’s move quickly to two remaining “content” questions, beginning with this: What does revelation say about religious freedom?

1) In other words, beyond our natural powers of reasoning, what does God’s revealed word tell us about religious freedom? In fact, Part Two of DH is entitled, “Religious Freedom in the Light of Revelation.” Well, to begin with, religious liberty is not a clear and distinct biblical concept. Rather, it arises out of the image of the Savior as “meek and humble of heart”: Jesus listened compassionately to those he encountered and showed mercy to erring sinners while challenging them to conversion; He taught us about the weeds and wheat growing in the field while warning us that one day we would have to give an account of our freedom; And he acknowledged the legitimacy of civil power “but clearly warned that the higher rights of God must be upheld” (DH, 11); It was the Lord who taught us that “the truth will set you free.” Out of this image of Christ emerges the consistent teaching of the Church, namely, “that man’s response to God in faith should be voluntary” (DH, 10). In Scripture we see how the Lord draws us to himself and evokes from us a free response of love. DH invites us to see that wholehearted faith in Christ and in his Church is the ultimate fulfillment of the God-given gift of human freedom.

2) Let me note in passing that the document sees no conflict here between what reason and revelation each teach about religious freedom; on the contrary, revelation confirms what reason attains and reason itself is open to the light of Revelation.

C. A final content question is this: Is religious freedom related to evangelization? The answer is “yes”; indeed the declaration opens with the Lord’s commission to the Apostles to go spread the Gospel and to baptize in the name of the Trinity. So let me mention several ways DH contributes to the New Evangelization:

1) First, DH connects individual religious liberty and communal religious liberty, that is, to the Church’s freedom to fulfill the mission given her by the Lord. Since religious freedom is anchored in human nature, the individual person is the primary subject of religious liberty; yet religious bodies and groups also have a right to religious freedom. How are these two expressions of religious freedom related? First is the innate relatedness of human beings to God and others: We live not as isolated individuals but indeed as members of communities and thus our rights and dignity transmigrate to the communities we form, including our religious communities.

Thus DH teaches that individual believers who open their hearts to God “in interior acts that are voluntary and free” have a right to “express those interior acts externally, participating with others in religious matters and professing [their] religion in a communal way (DH, 1). Conversely, the Church, as a spiritual authority, must have “as much freedom in action as the care of man’s salvation demands” (DH, 13). DH goes on to teach that the Church “claims for herself freedom as a society of men and women who enjoy the right to live in civil society according to the precepts of the Christian faith” (DH, 13). So the state has an obligation to protect the religious liberty both of individuals and of churches and church communities.

2) A corollary follows. The dimensions of religious freedom are the same for individuals and for groups: both have the right of free inquiry; both have the right to search for truth & for God; both have the right to proclaim their faith both within the church and in public. Both have the right and the duty to seek the truth, to hold fast to it once it is known, and “to order their whole life in accord with its demands” (DH, 2). For individuals, this extends to going about one’s daily work in accord with the moral demands of the Gospel and includes the right of individuals to bear witness to their faith even when its teachings are countercultural. So too churches are entitled “to govern themselves according to their own norms” in fulfillment of their mission (cf. DH, 8).

Beyond that, religious communities enjoy the right to influence society (DH, 8) and to contribute to the common good (cf. DH, 6).

3) Among the ways the Church contributes to the common good is its consistent teaching on the transcendent dignity of the human person, a teaching it puts to work in an amazing array of ministries that serve those in need. After the right to life, religious freedom is the first of all human rights because it pertains to man’s relationship to God, the very ground of each person’s life. Thus religious freedom is the source of all the other rights and freedoms. Part and parcel of the New Evangelization is this message of human dignity: the sacredness of human life and the defense of God-given freedoms. That message is crucial whether it is borne witness to in a totalitarian state or in increasingly secular societies such as our own.

IV. Current Threats to Religious Freedom

A. Well, by now one thing is clear. If I worked for Cliffs Notes, I’d be fired. My “summary” on the meaning of freedom in DH took longer than anticipated. So let us move quickly to bring all of this down to earth by identifying a few current challenges to religious freedom in light of DH.

B. First is the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere. All of us have seen the heartbreaking images on television of young Christian men about to be beheaded by ISIS. Some of the most ancient Christian communities have been uprooted & many monuments of antiquity, including Christian antiquity, have been destroyed. I have visited with bishops from places like Aleppo and Erbil whose people have been decimated by what the State Department, at the urging of the Knights of Columbus, finally declared to be genocide. This is obviously a massive violation of human rights but it is especially important for us to realize that these innocent people are losing their lives because they are Christian. The jihad conducted by ISIS and other extremists is more than a denial of religious freedom; it is an effort to eradicate Christianity and Christians from the Middle East, parts of Africa and to intimidate Christianity in the West. Let us pray for these, our sisters and brothers in the Lord, continue our relief efforts through the Knights of Columbus, the Order of Malta, CRS, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and many other agencies.

C. Second, we are facing many religious freedom challenges here at home. These challenges include efforts to reduce religious freedom to freedom of worship and increasing attempts by governments to interfere in the internal life of churches. They include attempts to encroach on the freedom of churches to hire for mission and to provide benefits plans in accord with their moral teachings. Church-run social services face licensure challenges if they don’t buckle under and many church adoption services have been forced to close down. Christian colleges face threats to accreditation because of their Christian identity and religious groups on college campuses face free-speech and assembly challenges. We’ve seen battles in various states over attempts to pass RFRA laws, that is, religious freedom restoration legislation which stipulate that state government can intervene in religious matters only when there is a compelling interest, using the least restrictive means. Likewise Obergefell, the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, has raised a host of religious freedom challenges affecting adoption services, hiring for mission, our schools, and pastoral practice. Pope Francis calls these kinds of religious freedom challenges “polite persecution”.

D. The most prominent domestic challenge to religious freedom is the HSS mandate. As you know, the Affordable Healthcare Act provides that “preventative” services be provided by employers at no cost to their employees through company health insurance plans. It also give HHS broad authority to mandate how this would come about. HHS decided that “preventative” services include contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and reproductive counseling. In 2011 it issued a mandate without any religious exemption. There was pushback so in the next version an “accommodation” was included. It said that some religious entities like parishes are exempt. Therefore, they do not have to include these objectionable services in their plans. But other religious entities such as Catholic Charities and schools are “less religious” and therefore they are not exempt; rather they are included in the accommodation. This has gone through a lot of versions but the bottom line is this: in some way a religious organization would tell the government that it has moral objections to including these so-called “services” in its plan. The very act of objecting, however, triggers the provision of those so-called “services”. Although the religious organization doesn’t have to pay for them, its healthcare plan becomes the vehicle for delivering what they are objecting to. Let me note in passing that HHS classifies religious institutions in ways that we don’t. We aren’t ready to concede that Catholic charities is less religious than a parish or that a Catholic school is less a work of religion than worship. In our teaching and belief, faith, worship, and service hang together. The Little Sisters of the Poor are the best known opponents of the HHS mandate. Along with others they brought their case to the Supreme Court. In turn, the high court suggested how this might be resolved but sent the matter back to the lower courts where it now stands.

E. In the meantime, HHS continues to issue new mandates that go beyond the healthcare insurance plans of religious employers. There is a new mandate for hospitals to perform transgender procedures and for this mandate there is no type of religious exemption. … … As new mandates emerge it his becoming clear that more is at stake than mere moral casuistry. It’s not merely a question of whether we are complicit in providing services and to what degree such complicity might be morally permissible. Isn’t it more a question of having the freedom to form ministries and institutions that can proclaim and advance the culture of life with integrity and joy? That’s what religious freedom is all about— not merely escaping immorality by the skin of our teeth but rather about creating workplaces that bear witness to our mission and having the freedom to form our employees to be on board with that mission. Religious freedom should allow us to operate in accord with who we say we are rather than to be told by the government who we are and how we should operate.

F. Finally, let’s recall that DH teaches that religious freedom means that Christians should be able to order their whole lives according to the teachings of their faith but that freedom is now “in the dock”, especially for small business owners. Hobby Lobby won an impressive Supreme Court victory against the HHS mandate but HHS has now offered them an accommodation much like it offered church plans. So despite their impressive victory, they are in the crosshairs once again. Small businesses that do not wish to be involved in same sex wedding ceremonies continue to undergo a real form of persecution in the form of fines and “re-training”. More than a few have been run out of business. In a post-Obergefell world, those who want to run a closely held business with a Christian orientation now face challenges in hiring and benefits, often running afoul of local and state anti-discrimination ordinances. As we have seen, enacting state laws protecting religious freedom (RFRA’s) for churches and closely held businesses has become increasingly difficult because of alliances with large businesses, the LGBT community and elected officials

V. Conclusion: How Should We Respond?

As we draw to a close let me offer a few suggestions on how we should respond:

A. My first suggestion is to pray each day for persecuted Christians abroad and for the restoration and preservation of religious freedom at home. Pray for elected officials, for judges, for church officials and others in the crosshairs; we should pray most earnestly as the current round of elections unfolds. Pray for good and wise leaders to guide our country. The Knights of Columbus have launched a novena for our country using a prayer attributed to John Carroll, our nation’s first bishop.

B. A second suggestion is for us to take Pope Francis at his word by deepening our relationship with Christ and undergoing a “missionary conversion” such that you and I will be true agents of the New Evangelization. For as President Garvey of Catholic University once said, “If we want to defend religious freedom, we need to love God more.” When our faith is awakened by encountering Christ and falling in love with him, our appreciation for the precious gift of religious freedom is also heightened. Conversely, as the faith and the values of faith recede, a void is created in lives of individuals, families, and communities, a void that is often filled in one way or another by governmental intervention. Episcopal statements unsupported by the Catholic faithful are often fruitless.

C. A third suggestion is to find creative ways to engage the culture all around us. While in the United States Pope Francis urged us all to build a society “that is truly tolerant and inclusive”, a society that rejects “every form of unjust discrimination.” Here is urging us to use our liberty to build a just and peaceful society. Those of us who are ordained and those of you preparing to be ordained recognize the need to accompany those whom we have the privilege to serve, listening to them, asking questions, and in that context sharing the Church’s teaching. In a word, we have to do a better job of forming Catholics for faithful citizenship. Putting out a document, however well thought out, every four years, isn’t working. It’s also true that political figures are often engaged by church officials only in the heat of a campaign or when a piece of legislation needs to be discussed. Isn’t it also important to try to build bridges to politicians, including those who disagree and act against the Church’s teaching? The search for common ground is laborious, as authentic dialogue often is. Finding the opportunity and the framework for such dialogue can be difficult. Yet, without this kind of engagement, we who are pastors and faithful Catholics contribute to the low level of political discourse we are currently witnessing.

D. A fourth suggestion pertains to education. You’ve been very kind to spend time with me this afternoon reflecting on the Church’s teaching on religious liberty and I know you continue to develop your knowledge of the faith in many ways. But think of how many young people, including millennials, haven’t a clue about our constitutionally protected freedoms, about our system of government, and about the true meaning of freedom. How many young people have gone to schools where the Church has been portrayed simply as a bad actor in the formation of Western civilization and to colleges and universities (including sadly Catholic institutions) where the fundamental freedoms and values are undermined. It’s time we demand better from our schools and urge our adult children to focus more intently on the task for forming their children in the ways of truth and freedom.

E. A fifth suggestion is that we consider the avenues of influence open to us all. There is no substitute for the apostolate of personal influence. This means that all of us need to consider our networks, those with whom we work and socialize. Are we doing all we can to influence them in the ways of truth and freedom? Are we helping them to see what is at stake in these debates and struggles.

F. Sixth is to make use of the networks already existing in the Church such as state Catholic conferences to make our views known to elected officials. While we seek to engage in a dialogue with public officials, we also recognize the need for immediate advocacy and organized political action regarding issues that are of prime importance to the Church. And while the Church does not engage in partisan politics, the members of the laity, whose mission in the Church is to bring the Gospel into the world – can be politically active in helping to raise up and elect candidates for office that will uphold the basic freedoms and values of our country and allow churches, families, and other societal institutions to flourish.

G. Finally, let me thank you, for while I am boldly making suggestions many of you are preparing for the priesthood that will be lived and exercised in a context very different from the present and moment and many of you, members of the laity, are already doing even more than what I have suggested. So, let us be of good cheer, praying for the grace to respond to our calling to help create a civilization of truth and love and to bequeath a better world to those who come after us!

Thanks for listening! God bless our Church! God bless our country!