Religious Liberty is Intrinsic to Human Dignity

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Cardinal Donald Wuerl talks with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts as they leave the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington after the annual Red Mass. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard)

The Church this year commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, by the Second Vatican Council. Today especially a renewed commitment to the fundamental principles affirmed in this eminent document is needed.

One of the hallmarks of our nation, which is made up of many peoples from different backgrounds and religious traditions, has been our ability to come together as one. This unity in diversity was seen at the Red Mass last Sunday when lawyers, judges and public officials from different faiths gathered at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle to offer up prayers seeking the gift of the Holy Spirit on all who are engaged in the service of the law and justice. Their presence at this liturgy, which marks the opening of the judicial year, was a humble affirmation of our need for the wisdom of God and the invaluable role that religion has played in our nation since its founding.

Yet we have also experienced in recent years, here and around the world, increasingly aggressive efforts to push God and religious believers out of the public square. Christians in particular have faced growing challenges to our ability to freely live our faith, from the persecution of our suffering sisters and brothers in foreign lands to a multiplicity of legal directives in this country that the Church act in ways contrary to our Catholic faith.

Before Pope Francis left on his apostolic journey, he revealed that he was carrying the cross of an Iraqi priest who was recently killed for refusing to renounce Christ. Our Holy Father’s first public words during his trip to Washington called for the preservation and defense of religious liberty from everything that would threaten or compromise it. Then, because the Pope is a pastor not only of words, but of action, later that day he made a special visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor here. He went to offer them support in their mission, including their stand in defense of religious liberty in their lawsuit against the HHS Mandate, which would compel them and other religious employers to violate their faith. It is expected that the U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to hear the Little Sisters’ case, perhaps together with a similar lawsuit brought by the archdiocese and its affiliated entities.

This is the context in which we mark 50 years of Dignitatis Humanae. As Americans, we know that religious liberty is not granted to us by government or subject to majority rule, but is intrinsic to our human nature. It is endowed to us by our Creator as part of our very being and thus is inviolate. In a similar way, the declaration, which was in part the work of the U.S. bishops, affirms that “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself” (Dignitatis Humanae, 2).

Central to human dignity, religious freedom can be said to be the first and most essential of all freedoms because it is concerned with seeking and living in the truth. It is only in truth that we are genuinely free (John 8:32). Believers know that the ultimate truth is the Lord himself and just as we have the right to live in that truth, so do non-believers have the right to seek and find that truth which is God.

Every person, the Council affirmed, has “the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means” (Dignitatis Humanae, 3). Accordingly, all persons “are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others” (Id., 2). Dignitatis Humanae then makes clear that one of the essential duties of government is to safeguard religious freedom (Id., 6).

While certainly insisting upon freedom for the Church to fully realize her Catholic identity and spiritual authority by “going out into the world and preaching the Gospel to every creature” (Id., 13), the Council explicitly affirmed that it “is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free,” (Id., 10), thereby disclaiming any effort to require others in our pluralistic world to believe the Church’s teaching. As Saint John Paul II later explained, “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience” (Redemptoris missio, 39). We simply ask for the freedom to live by that teaching ourselves.

Today we are confronted with a gathering storm that sees religious values as the principal threat to the secular frame of reference for the public forum. Fortunately, we have Dignitatis Humanae to guide our efforts and remind us that religious freedom is a freedom to be exercised, a challenge to be met, and a gift to be shared with others.