June 28, 2019

Editorial

Religious Freedom Week celebrates a fundamental human right

​Religious freedom gives us the space to carry out the mission that Jesus has entrusted to the Church. Religious freedom means that Catholics, and all people of goodwill, are free to seek the truth and to live in accordance with that truth, and so to strengthen our common life as a nation.

Beginning on June 22, the Feast of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, and concluding with the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) celebrates Religious Freedom Week. (USCCB announcement)

The USCCB defines religious freedom 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. Christians believe that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right that has its source in the inviolable dignity of the human person” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #2104–2109 and Second Vatican Council declaration Dignitatis Humanae).

According to Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, in his pastoral letter, “We are One in Christ: A Pastoral Letter on Fundamentals of Christian Anthropology,” our Church considers the dignity of the individual human person to be the fundamental principle of 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. The American bishops have repeatedly said that religious freedom includes and goes beyond 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 and act—both as members of a community of faith (the Church) and as citizens of this great nation.

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.

The United States Supreme Court strongly affirmed this conviction in its ruling on June 20 in favor of a war memorial in Bladensburg, Md., that for the past 90 years has stood as a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by local soldiers in World War I. In 2014, the American Humanist Association sued to remove the memorial simply because it includes a cross. The Supreme Court was asked to decide if historic symbols like these must be scrubbed from the public square simply because they are religious.

The Supreme Court’s opinion reversed the Fourth Circuit’s decision against the Peace Cross and stated that, for many, “destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.”

American values of respect and tolerance are celebrated by religiously based public symbols such as the Peace Cross. Rather than dividing or excluding people of different faiths (or no faith), these symbols speak to people from all walks of life because they call attention to our absolute right as human beings to “shape one’s life according to one’s faith or religious beliefs without fear of sanction or pressure from government authority” (USCCB open letter).

As Archbishop Thompson writes in “We Are One in Christ,” “When religious liberty is threatened or denied, all human rights are jeopardized and the inalienable dignity of every human being is called into question.”

Quoting Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the archbishop says, “The Church lives to make others sharers in the one thing she possesses, which is none other than Christ, our hope of glory [cf. Col 1:27]. To carry out this duty, she must count on basic religious freedom, which consists in her being able to proclaim and to celebrate her faith also in public, bringing to others the message of love, reconciliation and peace which Jesus brought to the world.”

We Americans 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.

Let’s call on all local, state and federal officials to make sure that religious liberty remains an integral part of our American way of life.

—Daniel Conway

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