The 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta Declaring the Freedom of the Church

Magna Carta

Cotton MS. Augustus II. 106, one of only four surviving exemplifications of the 1215 text.

From the beginning, the founders and people of our nation recognized our equality and liberty, and that they are bestowed on us by God, not by government. The importance of religion was so engrained in the American experience that for much of our history, freedom of the Church and religious liberties tended to be taken for granted under our constitutional system.

Today there are those who would question the legitimacy of religious conviction in the public forum. There is a growing tendency even within government to see religion as something exercised only in private and within the walls of one’s house of worship. We, however, recognize that historically this is a radical novelty.

By virtue of Baptism, the Christian is conformed to Christ in the very depths of his or her being, with a fundamental vocation to love God and one another in truth. In pursuing our Gospel mandate, we propose the ways of the kingdom in terms that others may freely accept or reject – we impose nothing. “In the context of society, there is only one thing which the Church quite clearly demands: the freedom to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when it runs counter to the world, even when it goes against the tide,” affirms Pope Francis (Meeting with Bishops of Brazil, July 28, 2013).

By invoking religious liberty, we do not ask for special treatment or privileges, but merely recognize the proper distinction between Church and state, between what belongs to Caesar, as Jesus said, and what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21). Pope Benedict XVI explained it this way: “For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct” (Deus caritas est, 28; see also Gaudium et Spes, 76; Dignitatis Humanae, 4-6).

Eight hundred years ago today in a field at Runnymede, these two critical principles – limited government and the sovereign freedom of the Church – were ratified in the issuance of the “Great Charter,” Magna Carta. Reissued multiple times in subsequent years, the first and last articles of that historic document provide that the rights and liberties of the Church shall be guaranteed against state interference in perpetuity. Here in our nation’s capital, we can see a copy of the 1297 version of Magna Carta at the National Archives.

Magna Carta and our own Constitution confirm that the government does not reign supreme; it does not have total dominion over everything, particularly the Church. There is instead separation of Church and state.

Properly understood, this means that it is not within the province or rightful authority of temporal government to intrude upon matters of faith generally and the Church specifically in her operations, governance, mission or identity. What separation of Church and state does not mean is a separation of faith and moral values from the public square or in the formulation of public policy.

Specifically, the government has an obligation to respect the Church in her:

  • -freedom of expression, teaching and evangelization;
  • -freedom of public worship;
  • -freedom to express her moral judgment on human reality whenever it may be required to defend the fundamental rights of the person or for the salvation of souls;
  • -freedom of organization and of her own internal government;
  • -freedom of selecting, educating, naming and transferring her ministers;
  • -freedom for constructing religious buildings;
  • -freedom to acquire and possess sufficient goods for her activity; and
  • -freedom to form associations not only for religious purposes but also for educational, cultural, health care and charitable purposes (Compendium of Social Doctrine, 426).

Others in our pluralistic society may and do have a view on certain matters – particularly moral concerns – which differ from Catholic teaching. The Church does not require others to believe her teaching. We simply ask that our freedom to live by that teaching ourselves be respected.

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