Want Religious Liberty? Live Your Faith

From the standpoint of Catholicism there is no more important right than religious liberty. It is the first of our freedoms.

As Catholics, we cherish religious liberty because we have been made by God and for God—our hearts are restless, as Saint Augustine wrote, until they rest in Him. God gave us freedom so that we might pursue him ardently. We have a right to religious liberty because we first have the duty to know, love, and serve Him. We have the solemn responsibility to order our intellects, our wills, our actions and indeed our very person toward God who is Love and Truth. Religious liberty allows us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and any curtailment of religious liberty is not only a radical affront to our rights, but more importantly, to our ability to be faithful Catholics in pursuit of eternal life.

Within the context of considering the redemption of man, Blessed John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical that “the curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is…a painful experience…an attack on man’s very dignity…a radical injustice with regard to what is particularly deep within man, what is authentically human” (17).

Sadly, these attacks seem to grow exponentially. The most immediate cause of consternation is the HHS mandate: the requirement that individuals and institutions opposed to contraception and abortion-inducing drugs cooperate in providing them to others. On June 28 the mandate’s final language was published. As Archbishop Lori notes in a jointly signed letter, “HHS continues to deny many Americans the freedom to manifest their beliefs through practice and observance in their daily lives.”

But as great a threat as this is to religious liberty, there is no current and impending threat that is graver than what is happening in the realm of homosexuality and the redefinition of marriage.

The Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage is described as “hateful” and “draconian,” and Catholics who proclaim it are increasingly ostracized as “bigots” and “haters.” This sort of description does not come only from overly-ambitious advocates of redefining marriage, but from Justice Kennedy’s words in the majority opinion overturning a key statute of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Kennedy indicated the traditional understanding of marriage is invalid because it “demeans the couple,” “humiliates tens of thousands of children,” and “for no legitimate purpose [has] the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect.”

Catholic teaching, rooted in God’s law, the words of Jesus, natural law, and common sense serves “no legitimate purpose” than to unjustly demean, humiliate, disparage, and injure. Here, in an opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States, we have the actuation of John Paul’s words from 1979: “believers are, as though by principle, barely tolerated or are treated as second-class citizens” (17). Joseph Ratzinger echoed this very concern specifically when he warned in his book, Crisis of Cultures that “[v]ery soon, it will no longer be possible to affirm that homosexuality (as the Catholic Church teaches) constitutes an objective disordering in the structure of human existence.” We have good reason to fear further efforts to deprive Catholics of the rights we possess by virtue of our citizenship or even our humanity.

If we want to protect religious liberty we must first live our faith. When religion goes untried, religious liberty is merely a token. What purpose does it serve, and why should the State protect religious liberty, if religion is ignored in the personal lives of citizens? Archbishop Chaput recently noted that religious liberty “has political force only to the degree that ordinary people believe and practice their faith—and refuse to tolerate anyone or anything interfering with faith.”

To be frank: If you want religious liberty, then act like it. And remember John Paul’s rejoinder that “[n]o privilege is asked for, but only respect for an elementary right. Actuation of this right is one of the fundamental tests of man’s authentic progress in any regime, in any society, system or milieu.” A society that is hostile to religious liberty creates a cultural milieu in which religion is increasingly difficult to embrace and live. Conversely, when people of faith fail to know, live and defend their faith a militant secularism is enabled and empowered so that religion is easily confined to a private affair or worship alone. Catholics must love their faith and have the courage to pursue God and His truth with their whole heart, mind, and soul. Only then will religious liberty have meaning and merit protection.

Arland K. Nichols


Arland K. Nichols is the founding President of the John Paul II Foundation for Life and Family.

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