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Truth and Religious Freedom

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s two-volume reflection on his experiences in America during the early 1800s, he writes that religion is “the first of their [American’s] political institutions,” and the “peaceful influence exercised by religion over their country [is attributed] principally to the separation of Church and state” (Vol. 1, Part 2, Ch. 9). Certainly, the State should have a healthy respect for the Church, yet this principle can be taken to the point that citizens are required to obey established civil laws, regardless of their consciences or religion. Indeed, given the current political atmosphere, it would seem that our religious freedom, which is more than just the freedom to worship, has been compromised on many different levels. We see this occurring in the recent Supreme Court case with the Little Sisters of the Poor fighting against the imposition of the HHS Mandate, which would require them to cover the costs of contraception and abortion.

Due to the rise of secularism in the United States, and indeed, around the world, the argument for religious freedom has become more difficult to make. At the celebration of the World Day of Peace in 2011, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s homily rigorously explained the importance of religious freedom. In it, we read, “Religious freedom expresses what is unique about the human person, for it allows us to direct our personal and social life to God, in whose light the identity, meaning, and purpose of the person is fulfilled” (1). Therefore, religious freedom is intimately linked with the dignity of the human person: the human person, as a rational creature, has the ability to choose to follow God. Benedict continues:

Little Sisters of the Poor (photo cred: the Beckett Fund)

Little Sisters of the Poor (photo cred: the Beckett Fund)

To deny or arbitrarily restrict this freedom is to foster a reductive vision of the human person; to eclipse the public role of religion is to create a society which is unjust, inasmuch as it fails to take account of the true nature of the human person; it is to stifle the growth of the authentic and lasting peace of the whole human family (Ibid).

As such, coercion in religious matters can never be in accordance with human dignity. Because religious freedom requires a choice on the part of the individual, no one can be coerced to believe anything contrary to his or her conscience.

Yet religious freedom is arbitrary when disconnected from the truth. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said on the eve of his election to the pontificate, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires” (emphasis added). Thus, in today’s society, truth is disregarded for feelings and desires, which in turn creates a disordered view of religious freedom. Almost anything could be argued for under the clause of “religious freedom.” “My conscience tells me that abortion is acceptable” and, “Same-sex unions are marriages because my religion tells me that it is true” are but a few examples of the complexities of the religious freedom argument when truth is removed from its vision.

To that end, in Benedict XVI’s 2012 address to the American bishops on their ad limina visit, the Holy Father stressed the importance of truth when arguing in the public square, which is the proper use of religious freedom. Benedict writes, “The Church’s defense of a moral reasoning based on the natural law is grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a ‘language’ which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being.” In other words, the truth that belongs to the Church does not contradict freedom, but rather, helps the human person to discover himself in his full rationality. Truth is a “message not of constraint but of liberation,” for the human person can only fulfill his dignity as a rational creature in knowing the truth.

Benedict’s discussion of truth and freedom leads into the relationship of the Church and State: “The Church’s witness, then, is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square.” This means that the Church has the right to speak about particular issues in the public square, and her teachings cannot merely be relegated to the private sector. Benedict forcefully explains that the State is not allowed to silence the “voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.” Therefore, because of religious freedom, individuals are allowed to proclaim the truths of the Catholic Church in the public square, regardless of what the government may argue. Moreover, the State is not allowed to prevent these voices from being heard, even if what is being said works against the secular agenda.

Again, it is important that truth be bound with this religious freedom. Many are afraid to proclaim the truth in the public sector for fear of rejection or disapproval. For that reason, Benedict writes, “Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate, and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.” Therefore, it is up to the laity to be well formed and firm in their beliefs in the Catholic Church in order to stand up against the secularization of our current age. If Catholics are unwilling to defend the truth, which is necessarily part of religious freedom, then they will see that very freedom dismantled by the State. Without a strong defense of the truth in the public square, Catholics will eventually lose their freedom to speak and possibly even to worship. Therefore, our defense of religious freedom in the public square must be linked with defending the truths of the Catholic faith in the public realm.

veronica_arntzVeronica Arntz graduated from Wyoming Catholic College with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, which included courses in humanities, philosophy, theology, and Latin, among others using the Great Books of Western thought. The title of her senior thesis was, “Communio Personarum Meets Communionis Sacramentum: The Cosmological Connection of Family and Liturgy.” She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology from the Augustine Institute.
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