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by John Garvey, J.D.
The Catholic University of America
Religious liberty has been in the news a lot recently and, unfortunately, the news has not been good.
Some of that news has been domestic. Much has been said and written, for example, about the many Christian institutions (including my own) that have filed complaints against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). We believe the HHS contraceptive mandate violates our religious liberty by forcing us to offer our students and employees, as one of our health benefits, coverage of prescription contraceptives, early-term abortifacients, and surgical sterilizations.
The news from abroad has been even more disturbing. Consider the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. On June 10, 2014, the extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized the city of Mosul. ISIS offered Christians in the city a stark choice: convert, pay a tax, or face the sword. The doors of Christian homes and businesses were marked with the Arabic letter "N" for Nasrani (the Arabic word for "Christian"). ISIS seized properties from the Chaldean Catholic Church and replaced crosses on the Syrian Orthodox Cathedral with black flags. By July 18, 2014, the deadline ISIS gave Christians to convert or pay the tax, the city was emptied of Christians for the first time in 1600 years.
Christian and Yazidi women have been raped, enslaved, and forced into marriage by ISIS extremists. Christians who fled were stripped of their property, and holy sites, such as the tomb of Jonah, have been destroyed. Nuns and children have been abducted by ISIS soldiers. There are reports—and graphic images—of summary executions.
These brutal violations of religious liberty challenge us to consider why we believe religious liberty is important, and how we can defend it conceptually and practically.
A Right to Religious Liberty
Among all of the proposed solutions for aiding persecuted religious minorities in Iraq, no politician, no newspaper editorial, no television reporter has suggested that religious minorities in Iraq renounce their faith and convert to the Islamic State's particular interpretation of Islam. This would be a swift and simple solution to the threat posed by ISIS. But it is an unspoken assumption that forced conversion is too repugnant even to be considered.
We believe that Christians and Yazidis, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Kaka'i and Baha'i, all have a right to freedom from coercion in matters of faith and the right not to be hindered in the practice of their religion. We think that the free exercise of religion is so important that it should not be sacrificed even to secure some surpassing good such as physical security.
This idea is expressed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is found in article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It is repeated in article 10 of the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The concept of a right to religious liberty is so familiar, it can seem self-evident. But it rests on a certain understanding of God and human nature. God, out of love for us, made us for himself and in his image. It is because we have that end and that nature that we need a right to religious liberty.
Man Is Made for God
We do not offer the same degree of protection to every human activity that we give to the exercise of religion. We have not, for example, enshrined in our Bill of Rights or the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights a right to go fishing. Not that there is anything wrong with fishing. It simply is not important enough to be protected as a constitutional right. The government could regulate it or forbid it altogether for reasons that would not prevail over the practice of religion. (It would suffice to say, for example, that the supply of cod or salmon was getting low.)
This suggests that we think religion is an especially good or important thing. It is, in fact, what human beings are made for. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, human beings were created to know, love, and serve God (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2000], no. 1721).
Scripture is filled with exhortations to know, love, and serve God. The very first Commandment that the Lord gives to Israel is to worship God alone: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me" (Ex 20:2-3). In the Gospel, Christ reaffirms that the first and greatest of the Commandments is to "love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt 22:37). The psalmist repeatedly reminds us to bless the Lord, (Ps 104:1), to give him thanks, (Ps 105:1), and to praise him (Ps 106:1). St. Paul appeals to us to "offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1). A distinct picture of the human person emerges from these passages. As the Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware put it, "Man is best defined not as a 'logical' but as a 'eucharistic' animal" (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 53–54). Human beings are made to give thanks to God.
So, to prevent human beings from devoting themselves to God is first an offense against God. Because God made us for himself, we have a duty to give ourselves to him. God did not suggest that we have no other gods before him; he commanded it. Because God's claim on us precedes any claim a human community might have on us, our duty of devotion to God entails, in relation to other people, a fundamental right to religious devotion (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom [Dignitatis Humanae], in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1996], nos. 1, 3).
We see a clear example of this in the account of Israel's emancipation from Egypt. When Moses demands Israel's release, he says to Pharaoh, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go, that they may hold a feast for me in the wilderness" (Ex 5:1). The demand for freedom hinges on the fact that God's claim on Israel is greater than Pharaoh's. St. Thomas More provides another example. More was the Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII. He refused to sign the Act of Succession, which annulled Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was convicted of treason and martyred for his refusal. But More justified his disobedience as an act of higher obedience. He died saying, "I die the king's good servant, but God's first."
Man Is Made in God's Image
In some cultures and some historical periods, people have embraced this point (about our duty to God) with single-minded enthusiasm. If religion is a duty we owe to God, some say, we might be better off if the state enforced our observance of it. It is much more important than the fifty-five mile-per-hour speed limit, for example, and we have the police enforce that rule. Why not also the commandments about prayer, fasting, the practice of virtue, and the avoidance of vice? This is the logic behind some interpretations of Islam that insist on the State using its political and legal arm to force religious teaching or discipline.
Here, we see that the case for protecting religious liberty makes a second assumption about human beings. The right to the free exercise of religion is grounded in the fact that God made human beings in his image and likeness (Gn 1:26; CCC, no. 1700). Like God, human beings are endowed with reason and free will. This gives us the ability to initiate and direct our own search for God, and freely choose to devote ourselves to him.
Because our thoughts are free, it is ultimately futile to coerce a person in matters of religion. As the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty explained, you cannot force a person to believe in God or to accept a set of doctrines, because "the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power" (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 1). Nor can you force someone to truly devote himself to God, even if you can compel him to perform acts of devotion. "The exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God" (Dignitatis Humanae, no.3).
Perhaps even more importantly, denying religious freedom (by imposing or forbidding religion) is an affront to human dignity, because freely directing our course toward God is essential to being human.
As rational creatures with the ability to reflect on ourselves and the rest of creation, human beings naturally ask questions that point us toward God. "Where did we come from?" "Is there anything beyond death?" "What is our relationship to that ultimate reality?" (Nostra Aetate, no.1). The answers to these questions have implications for how we live our lives. When human beings can't—or don't—relate themselves to God in their thoughts, words, and actions, they cannot live a fully human life.
Religious liberty is, then, a recognition of the great dignity of the human person. St. Irenaeus, a second century bishop who lived through a violent persecution of the Church, observed that the whole history of salvation reveals that "there is no coercion with God." Had God wished it, he could have created each person with the whole deposit of faith "downloaded" into his mind, all the virtues pre-installed, and his will permanently fixed on God. Reflecting on why God did not choose to do this, St. Irenaeus concluded that if human beings did not come to God through their own efforts,
communion with God [would not] be precious, nor would the good be very much to be sought after, which would present itself without their own proper endeavor, care, or study[. B]eing good would be of no consequence, because they were so by nature rather than by will, and are possessors of good spontaneously, not by choice. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 37)
Irenaeus's point is that God made us in his own image so that we can be something truly wonderful. We are not made to receive good things passively from God. We have the honor of cooperating in our own perfection (Gaudium et Spes, no. 17) and sharing in divine life (Lumen Gentium, no. 2).
If we use our faculties to seek God and devote ourselves to him, at the end of our lives we can hope to repeat the words of St. Paul: "I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me" (2 Tm 4:7-8). We protect religious liberty because we believe human beings (with the help of grace) really are capable of this.
Religious Liberty and the Practice of Charity
I have argued that the right to religious liberty rests on several assumptions about God and the human person. Because God made us for himself, we have a duty to worship him that precedes any human claim. Because God made us in his own image, as free moral agents, we cannot flourish without the freedom to seek God.
Not everyone agrees with these views. The most important thing we can do to secure religious freedom in our society is to convince our fellow citizens of the truth of the assumptions it rests upon. If someone does not believe in a loving God, he is not likely to rank serving God above other worthy ends, like material prosperity or service to country. Someone who doubts that we are made in God's image may lack the respect for human dignity that grounds the right to pursue the truth freely.
The "argument" for these assumptions is not a syllogism but a demonstration. We show God's image, and our likeness to him, through the practice of charity. "God is love." This was revealed most perfectly to us, St. John explains, when "God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him" (1 Jn 4:8-9). When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, we imitate the love of God.
And by imitating divine love, we manifest divine love. When people experience charity motivated by believers' love for God, they experience God's goodness. Throughout the Church's history, her practice of charity has been the most compelling witness to the goodness of God and the value of religious devotion. The fourth-century emperor Julian the Apostate, for example, observed that it was the Christian community's "benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives" that attracted people to the faith ("To Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia," trans. W.C. Wright, Julian,vol. 3 [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923]). Even when the experience of charity does not lead others to belief in God, it demonstrates that religious devotion makes an invaluable contribution to the common good.
At the same time, through the practice of charity, believers manifest the great dignity of the human person—their own and that of the people they minister to. By serving others out of a love grounded in faith, we witness to the ability of the human person to devote himself freely to God and to participate in the divine life of love. Our practice of charity affirms the dignity of those we serve by demonstrating that what they need, as much as food, shelter, and health care, is love—because human beings are made for God, who is love.
In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI said that "the best defense of God and man consists precisely in love" ([Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 2005], no. 31). And the best defense of God and man is the best defense of religious liberty.
Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Excerpts from documents of the Second Vatican Council are from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery, OP, © 1996. Used with permission of Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, copyright © 2005, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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