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July 9, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 18






– Necrology


photo: Joshua BittingThreats against religious liberty: a Catholic response

In response to the increasing threats to religious liberty in our country, the U.S. bishops have recently formed an ad hoc committee under the leadership of Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.

In their recent statement “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops outline some of the most egregious attacks on religious liberty taking place in our country.

Among them is the Health and Human Services mandate requiring many religious institutions as well as individuals of faith to provide and fund products which are repugnant to their moral sensibilities. These include contraceptives, abortion-causing drugs and sterilization procedures.

Other attacks singled out for concern are state immigration laws that prohibit religious groups from ministering to undocumented immigrants as well as the revoking of licenses of Catholic foster care and adoption services because these organizations refuse to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples.

At the root of these attacks on religious freedom is an attempt to redefine religious liberty into a much narrower definition of “freedom of worship.”

Simply put, there is an attempt to privatize faith and the moral principles and convictions that flow from the deeply-held religious convictions of individuals and groups.

Religious liberty is more than just the ability to attend Mass or pray in the privacy of one’s home; it is about our ability to contribute to the good of society and bring our values into the public square.

What is so distressing about this redefinition of religious freedom is that it relegates religious faith to the private opinion of each individual or group while at the same time stepping into the internal life of an individual or religious organization and defining what principles they can and cannot abide by.

The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty defines religious liberty as immunity from coercion of conscience on the part of groups or individuals. No individual or group can be forced to act contrary to conscience, nor can they be prohibited from acting in accord with their conscience.

The Declaration furthermore makes clear that the right to religious liberty is rooted in the dignity of the human person created in God’s image and likeness and is not a right that any government or individual can bestow or take away. To force an individual or group to act contrary to their conscience offends the sacred dignity of the human person (Declaration 2).

With regard to America’s heritage of religious liberty, there is a close correspondence with the Vatican II Declaration. Our country’s founding documents recognize certain inalienable rights that each person is endowed with by his Creator; and religious liberty is recognized in the U.S. Constitution as our “first freedom.”

In fact, religious freedom is the basis of any true democracy: one can find its origin as early as the Magna Carta of 1215.

Another major concern is that the mandate pushes people of faith out of the public square. Since the human person is by his very nature a social being, religious communities have a right to organize according to their own principles and to live out their faith in the public square (Declaration 4).

For Catholics, this includes the Church’s many apostolates of health care, foster care and adoption services, education and outreach to the poor and homeless. The Catholic Church stands as the largest charitable organization in the world, serving the common good in myriad ways.

As Catholic laity, how are we called to respond in the face of the present threats to religious liberty? First of all, as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has pointed out, we must become lovers of God.

All the great martyrs for religious freedom had in common that they loved God more than their own lives. We, too, must put our priorities in the correct order.

graphic: Joshua Bitting is Director of Religious Education at St. Matthew Parish in Virginia Beach.As Catholic Christians we have a “dual citizenship.” We are first of all citizens of the “heavenly city” and second, citizens of the “earthly city.” We are not Americans who happen to be Catholic; rather, we are Catholics who happen to be American. Our first obedience is to God.

When we are forced to decide between allegiance to God or to men, we must respond with the first Christians, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

As Saint Thomas More said just before he died, “I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” Only if we are lovers of God will religious liberty continue to be valued.

Second, we are challenged to educate ourselves on the Church’s teaching regarding religious liberty. The U.S. bishops’ website contains numerous resources for Catholics to learn more about the challenges to religious freedom and conscience protection and how we can become more aware of the rich heritage of Catholic teaching.

We can also read the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty, “Dignitatis Humanae.” We can and should grow in our knowledge of the Catholic faith.

Last, we are called to live lives of integrity. An integrated life is one in which one’s conscience has been formed according to the truth and in which one freely chooses the good. Part of living a life of integrity is being advocates of religious liberty in our daily lives, letting it guide our conversations and the way we vote.

Most importantly, we are called to pray for our governmental leaders, praying they will wisely and prudently work toward the common good. Only in being the very best Christians that we can be, will we also serve our country as the best citizens!

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