The Pope, the President and Religious Freedom

Yesterday on the South Lawn of the White House, President Barack Obama and Pope Francis exchanged brief remarks.  To listen to the remarks one would think that there was near perfect agreement between the two.  They both spoke of the environment, immigration and religious liberty.  While they were using the same words, they each attach very different meanings to those words.  Once we begin to look at this more closely,  understood, we find that the apparent agreement is much less than initially thought, especially when it comes to religious freedom.

In his remarks, the Holy Father said that American Catholics “are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions.”  President Obama for his part said that “[H]ere in the United States, we cherish religious liberty…So we stand with you in defense of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, knowing that people everywhere must be able to live out their faith free from fear and free from intimidation.”  Although it seems they are in support of the same thing, there is a subtle difference in what they are saying that makes all the difference in the world.  It is as if Pope Francis is saying that American Catholics like religious liberty because it is good and President Obama is saying Americans think religious liberty is good because they like it.  One is rooted in the objective natural law, the other as a concession made by the government so that its citizens can worship if and how they want.

For all the discussion of religious liberty, very rarely is it examined for what it is.  Before we can address religious freedom, we must know what kind of freedom we are talking about.  In other words, what is religion?  Philosopher John Carlson defines religion as a “set of beliefs, relations and activities by which people are united, or regard themselves as being united to the realm of the transcendent.”    This definition has four fundamental characteristics of all religions.  First, since religion is a set of beliefs it assumes that man can somehow grasp and relate to this transcendent order through the use of reason.  Religion as a set of relations means that religion is something that people do in common and not merely as isolated individuals.  Because religion is a set of activities these beliefs are not only theoretical but require a response in the practical order.  Finally, and most importantly, religion concerns a relationship between man and some reality that is distinct from or above the empirical order.  It seems that this four-fold definition is consistent with the understanding of religion that informed our founding fathers.  The author of the Bill of Rights, James Madison, defined religion as “the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, being under the direction of reason and conviction only, not of violence or compulsion, all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of Conscience” (James Madison, Amendments to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 1776).

Pope and Pres

While the fourth US President thought that religion was rooted in the nature of man as “the duty we owe to our Creator, ” the forty-fourth President thinks it merely one of “our core views as Americans” (Press Conference with President Obama and President Hu of the People’s Republic of China, January 19, 2011).  This leaves us with the need to answer the fundamental question of whether freedom of religion is something that is natural or given by the State.

Recall that St. Thomas thought that the natural law directly followed from the natural inclination of man towards four fundamental goods that perfect him—to preserve their life, to procreate and educate his children, to live in society, and to know the truth, especially about God (ST I-II, q.94, a.2). Because man is naturally inclined towards these goods he has a duty to obtain them and a corresponding right arises to pursue these goods.  Furthermore, whatever pertains to each of these goods directly would be considered a natural right.  Because life is an intrinsic good there is a right to life.  Because marriage and the rearing of children is a single intrinsic good, there is a natural right to marriage and children have a right to be raised by their biological parents.  Since man is by nature social, each person has a right to contribute to the common good.  Finally, from the duty to seek the truth the natural right to religious freedom follows.

Furthermore, the four intrinsic goods represent a hierarchy.  This hierarchy proceeds from the most basic, life, to the highest good of seeking the Ultimate Truth, Who is not just a concept or set of propositions, but a Person.  From this it follows that freedom of religion is, as the US Bishops have labeled it, “our first liberty.” This is because it is directly related to man’s end and ultimate Good, God Himself.  Furthermore, the lower goods often must be freely sacrificed for the sake of the higher ones.  Therefore we must be prepared to forgo the other goods—being a part of society, marriage, and even life—in defense of this ultimate good.  That is why Cardinal George could say “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square” if the assaults on religious liberty continue without being accused of suffering from delusions of paranoia.

The Second Vatican Council issued one of its most controversial documents, Dignitatis Humanae, to address the issue of religious freedom.  The Council Fathers enumerated three principles that can serve to illuminate true religious freedom from its counterfeits that are threatening it today.  These three principles concern its foundation, its purpose, and its limits.

Foundation of Religious Freedom

As was mentioned above the foundation for religious freedom is the dignity of the human person.  The Council put it this way:

“It is in accordance with their dignity as persons…that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth… Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature.” (DH, 2)

This bears repeating here because one of the imposters that threatens religious freedom today is the notion of religious tolerance.  Recall that religion is considered a human good that ought to be promoted.  Therefore it should not be treated as an evil to be tolerated.  In recognition of the fact that it is a true human good, rather than tolerate the religious life of its citizens, the State should “take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor.” (DH, 3)

Tolerance was initially proposed as a concession that confessional states such as Anglican England and Catholic France would make towards other Christians.  It was based upon the assumption that the state had recognized a certain religion as true and the state would tolerate other practices and beliefs as a concession to those in error.  As the Enlightenment project took further root, the idea of tolerance was extended to religion in general especially in non-confessional states like the United States.  The danger that is ever looming is that if the state views itself as extending tolerance to religion, it can also cease toleration altogether.  Religious freedom becomes merely a civil right and is no longer viewed as a natural right.  This would be the view of the President.

The Purpose of Religious Freedom

The Council Fathers also addressed the purpose of religious liberty as well.   Religious freedom is necessary so that persons may fulfill their duty to seek the truth, to embrace it, and to live in conformity with the truth, once it has been discovered and accepted (DH, 1-2).  Like all liberties it should not be viewed as an end in itself but instead as a means to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to come to know the truth and live in its fullness.  A society that respects religious liberty is one that contributes to a spirit of openness to transcendent truth especially through education and respectful exchanges.  This mutual search for the truth can act as a cohesive force to bind a society together.

Modern man views freedom and objective truth as somehow in opposition to each other rather than truth being a condition for freedom’s fulfillment.  If truth and freedom are in opposition with each other then one must be rejected.  The modern tendency is to reject the existence of objective truth.  In the absence of truth then the will becomes primary and so choice becomes the greatest good.

In his ad Limina Visit with US Bishops in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said that based upon this reduced anthropology there is a “tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”  Once religion is no longer seen as a search for objective truth about the transcendent order but instead as a subjective preference then religion is a strictly private affair.  This creates a two-headed hydra of sorts in that freedom of worship is always accompanied by “freedom from religion” or, more accurately, “freedom from other people’s religion” in which people recoil from religious believers insist on “imposing their truth on others.”

Limits on Religious Freedom

The Council treats religious freedom as a two-edged sword with respect to limits.  First, religious liberty “means that all men 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” but this freedom can only be exercised “within due limits.”

The right to use coercion is a defining characteristic of the state.  Not only is this power a means to protect the safety of people against evildoers, but it also serves a teaching function that helps the evildoer himself remove the obstacles to a life of virtue.  But this power also is limited in that it should not force anyone to act against the truth as he understands it.  This is the fundamental issue with things like the Gay Marriage SCOTUS decision.  The Church views this mandate as coercive in the manner in which it forces Catholics to act against the truth of what is truly good for the human person.

On the other hand, with the modern exaltation of liberty much of civil discourse centers around what Mary Ann Glendon terms “rights talk.”  This way of speaking of rights has led to the tendency to absolutize all rights without any reference to the limits of those rights.  Religious freedom is not an absolute right but instead is governed by “due limits.”  These due limits are based upon whether they inhibit the exercise of others’ duties and their effect on the common good.

There has been a great emphasis in the Church on the need to dialogue with those who do not understand or agree with the Church.  In fact, Pope Francis described his visit as “days of encounter and dialogue.”  While this is certainly necessary and laudable, this can never truly happen without first making sure we are speaking the same language.  Just because we are using the same words, doesn’t mean that we are talking about the same things.

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