“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These famous words from the Declaration of Independence are worth pondering as the Church in America observes the sixth annual Fortnight for Freedom from June 21 through July 4.
It doesn’t take much for us weak human creatures to take that which is most foundational for granted. Sometimes we need a wake-up call to remind us of what is truly important for human flourishing. For many, it’s a life-changing experience – such as a brush with death, seeing God’s intervention in a seemingly impossible situation, or the grace of a changed life following a downward spiral for example – that triggers a deeper relationship with God, a renewed sense of gratitude, or a fresh outlook on life. We might wonder, or even chastise ourselves, as to why we didn’t recognize or appreciate what we had all along. Yet God in His merciful providence uses these experiences – even, and sometimes especially, the bad ones – to manifest His goodness to us and to draw us closer to Himself.
Such is the case with religious freedom. As young students, we learned about how the pilgrims left their homeland and came to America all for a cause they held most dear: the right to worship God their Creator. Despite incredible hardships, they came out on the other side with a spirit of gratitude for God’s guidance and protection so great that we still celebrate the First Thanksgiving every November. Similarly, the early colonists shed their blood in the fight for true freedom, and God-fearing men spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, years, and many a sleepless night crafting a Constitution for a new nation that was rooted in the truth about the fundamental goods of the human person and the freedom necessary for society’s flourishing.
At the National Archives in Washington, DC, the original documents of the Founding Fathers are available for public viewing. Among the displays in this remarkable place of history, one learns that Thomas Jefferson raised large flocks of geese for the express purpose of producing the quality of quills needed to write the Declaration of Independence. (Apparently a grown goose only produces a handful of quills and Mr. Jefferson needed more than a few to produce the numerous drafts he penned.) To see with one’s own eyes these centuries-old documents, hand-written, faded, preserved, is a moving experience, a glimpse of the reality of history that changed the world because people devoted their lives to protecting and defending that which is most important.
All these sacrifices of so many people of principle and conscience, known and unknown, have shaped a nation that proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. And yet, increasingly these truths that are supposed to be “self-evident” are becoming more and more obscured by darkened consciences and the loss of what was once a given in the collective understanding: that we are created by God for a purpose. The Founding Fathers understood this. Life is an inherent right, a gift from God, and it must be protected, for without it we can do nothing. Liberty is why the first settlers came here in the first place. Modern day’s misplaced notion of freedom to mean “license to do as you please”, with little thought to the consequences, is not true freedom. True freedom is the freedom to choose the good; and with freedom comes responsibility for our actions. The Pursuit of Happiness is also fundamental because it is the fruit of being able to enjoy the gifts of life and liberty. As God said to Cain in Genesis 4:7, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you but you must master it.” The unhappiness that results from sin is obvious to the Christian, and we also know the opposite effect: the happiness and interior peace that results from pursuing the good.
A very striking passage from the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1974 document, the Declaration on Procured Abortion, expresses these “self-evident truths” in a way that while explicitly addressing the right to life, can also by extension apply to freedom and the pursuit of happiness as well. “The first right of the human person is his life…this [right] is fundamental – the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority in any form to recognize this right for some and not for others… It is not recognition by another that constitutes this right. This right is antecedent to its recognition; it demands recognition and it is strictly unjust to refuse it.” (n. 11)
The Fortnight for Freedom offers us a focused time of reflection, prayer, education, and action. If we are to preserve religious freedom, we must not lose sight of our mission, but rather renew our resolve to embrace God’s call. The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), reminds us, “The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom 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 in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs…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” (DH, n. 2).
Observing the Fortnight for Freedom is an opportunity to reclaim the truth about human dignity, authentic freedom, and the right to live our lives according to our well-formed conscience which puts God first and places loving and serving Him at the forefront, and as the motivation, for all that we do. This year’s theme is “Freedom for Mission”. As the nation’s bishops have reminded us very clearly in recent years, religious freedom is much more than freedom to worship. It means being able to act on our deeply held moral convictions in our daily lives; and it is this ability that we find increasingly threatened. Jesus told us this was not going to be easy and we can take heart in His words, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:10).
We can see the truth of Christ’s words evidenced as vendors are forced out of business because they will not compromise their belief in the reality that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. We see this taking place in the lives of medical professionals – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – who are forced out of practice because they believe the scientific fact that life begins at conception and by virtue of their profession have promised to do no harm. The church’s many ministries of service to those in need have been compromised by government coercion, including the ability to facilitate adoptions, to aid victims of human trafficking, and most famously, those such as the Little Sisters of the Poor who cannot and will not compromise their belief in the face of the government’s imposition of the HHS mandate to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs in their employees’ health plans. Given all these manifestations of the suppression of religious freedom, it becomes quite evident that advocacy for the passage of the Conscience Protection Act by Congress is greatly needed at this time in our history, and this advocacy is a concrete action that we can all take to help protect the values we hold dear.
If we are to fulfill our call as missionary disciples, we must persevere in proclaiming the truth about human freedom. Let us work and pray hard that with the help of God we may reclaim the understanding of self-evident truths, rekindle renewed appreciation for the gift of religious liberty, and inspire the conviction needed to protect and defend it vigorously.
For more information about religious freedom and how you can take part, visit the USCCB’s website at www.fortnightforfreedom.org or consult your local diocese.