The Freedom to be True to Our Catholic Identity

Photo: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Photo: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

On this Fourth of July, which concludes the Fortnight for Freedom, we need to remember that Christianity offers an ancient and enduring understanding of freedom which has served humanity well. The human capacity to make choices, including our need to distinguish between good and bad choices, is not something outside us, nor is it given to us by another person or the government. It is an expression of our very human nature and it is intrinsic to our human dignity. It is called freedom.

Human freedom – or as sometimes framed in contemporary discourse, “freedom of choice” – when fully and rightly understood, does not mean absolute autonomy to do whatever you want to do. It is in truth, Jesus said, that we are set free (John 8:32). If we do not know or recognize what is true and what is false, then we cannot make an informed and intelligent choice, that is, a free choice.

“Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery,” recognized Saint John Paul II (Fides et ratio, 90). If we live a lie, we are not free. Thus, we are free not to do whatever we want to do, but what we ought to do, that is, to do what is true to who we are as God made us to be.

When we turn to who we are as Catholics, the Church was established by Jesus “as a communion of life, charity and truth,” taught the Second Vatican Council, and it is used by the Lord “as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth” (Lumen gentium, 9). In this way, by bearing witness to Christ, the Church serves humanity’s true freedom. If we are impaired in our ability to be true to our Catholic identity and mission, then necessarily we are not free.

It is clear that as social beings our human freedom is not exercised in a vacuum. We coexist with others, and so freedom is necessarily a shared freedom. Invariably there will be conflicts of interest and belief.

One balance traditionally struck and which has worked over the years includes voluntary association. For example, no one is forced to belong to any faith community, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or otherwise, and no one is forced to work in one or another faith- based institution. All are free to follow their own path.

This is a reasonable and long recognized way of living together that accommodates everyone in their choices and conscience. Some commentators see this situation as a uniquely American way to live both freedom and diversity. It rests upon the understanding that diversity is real and disagreement is not discrimination.

The Church does not require others to believe or live by her teaching. But we do ask for and insist on the freedom to present and publically demonstrate our faith in our personal lives and in our Catholic schools and other faith-based institutions.

In our pluralistic society, we must be free to protect our Catholic mission and identity. In accordance with religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment, Catholic organizations should be free to operate by the tenets of the Catholic faith, should not be forced to accept the government’s moral views, and should not be required to provide a platform for persons who oppose in both word and action the mission of the Church. Those who choose to participate in the ministry of our institutions share in the obligation to help them achieve their goals and purpose, which is to bear witness to lead people to Jesus, avoiding anything that might lead them away from the Lord.

Saint John Paul II stressed that the Church is “obliged to do everything possible to carry out her mission in the world and to reach all peoples. And she has the right to do this, a right given her by God for the accomplishment of his plan” (Redemptoris missio, 39). The entire community benefits when our freedom to be fully and authentically Catholic is respected because the richness of Catholic teaching can engage the secular culture in a way that the light of the wisdom of God is brought to bear on the issues of the day.

This blog post is based on excerpts from my recent pastoral letter “Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge” (2015).