July 6, 2018

Editorial

Religious freedom is not optional

“Religious freedom is the freedom to think, act, and shape one’s life according to one’s faith or religious beliefs without fear of sanction or pressure from government authority. It is a fundamental human right, derived from the inviolable dignity of the human person and also guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America. Religious freedom includes, but is much more than, the freedom to worship.” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

The Church in the United States observed Religious Freedom Week from June 22 to June 29. Religious freedom is a serious issue that must be addressed whether or not it’s comfortable or convenient. Why? Because threats against religious liberty challenge our most fundamental identity as Catholics and as Americans.

What do we mean by “religious freedom”? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) describes it as “the freedom to think, act, and shape one’s life according to one’s faith or religious beliefs without fear of sanction or pressure from government authority.”

We believe that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right that has its source in the inviolable dignity of the human person (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2104–2109, and the Second Vatican Council’s “Dignitatis Humanae” (“Declaration on Religious Freedom”). As Archbishop Charles C. Thompson notes in his pastoral letter, “We Are One in Christ: A Pastoral Letter To the Clergy, Religious and Faithful People of Central and Southern Indiana On Fundamentals of Christian Anthropology,” “We consider the dignity of the individual human person to be the fundamental principle of all Catholic social teaching.”

Religious liberty is also guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America. It is an American value as well as a universal human right. And as the bishops have repeatedly said, “religious freedom includes, but is much more than, the freedom to worship.” We Catholics believe it is a serious mistake to reduce religious freedom to something private or lived out only within a worshiping community one day a week. Religion is deeply personal, but it is not private. It influences how we think, speak and act—both as members of a community of faith (the Church) and as citizens of this great nation (the United States).

Religious freedom embraces both institutions and individuals. The history of Catholicism in the United States is the story of pioneering individuals and courageous communities who built churches, schools, hospitals and service agencies that are unparalleled in their service to their local communities and to our nation. To suggest that religious freedom only applies to congregations’ Sunday worship is to misunderstand totally the extensive impact of religious life and commitment on every aspect of American life.

Our Church serves people from all walks of life because we are Catholic, not because they are. That’s an integral part of our identity as Catholics. We are open to all.

In his apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World”), Pope Francis refers to what he calls “the great criterion” (#95; Mt 25:31-46). If we take Jesus’ words seriously, there’s no way we can restrict our faith to our interior life. “I was hungry and you gave me food,” the Lord says. “I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” These words compel us to go out among our neighbors—especially the poor and vulnerable—to minister to them in very public ways.

We are commanded to love God and to love our neighbor. Laws that protect our freedom to comply with one of these commands but not the other are unacceptable. Indeed, they must be rejected. All—not just some—of our religious institutions share equally in the God-given right to think, act, and shape our religious beliefs without fear of sanction or pressure from governmental authority.

As Americans, we believe that one of the reasons our government exists is to ensure that religious freedom is safeguarded for both institutions and individuals. We take our religious freedom seriously, and we call on all local, state and federal officials to make sure that religious liberty remains an integral part of our American way of life.

Our national celebration of Independence Day on July 4 carries forward the themes of Religious Freedom Week. Let’s thank God for the gift of religious liberty. May we never forget those who fought and died for this freedom. May their sacrifices never be forgotten.

—Daniel Conway

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