The Right to Be Human

By Anne McGuire

February 17, 2012

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Many are familiar with the beginning of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous poem, but there is a lesser known line which relates perfectly to the current crisis of the recent HHS mandate: "I love thee freely, as men strive for Right." In this line, Browning recognized the inseparable relationship between love and authentic freedom. For all the discussions today about freedom, do we really understand its foundation? We need to, because the right of individuals and institutions to act according to their religious beliefs and moral convictions is in danger, and the threat strikes at the heart of what it means to be human.

Every human heart aches for love that will penetrate every corner of our existence and give meaning to our lives. We search for fulfillment, yet whatever we turn to often falls short. This infinite desire reveals that only infinite love can satisfy our longing. As C.S. Lewis said, "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world."

We can then conclude that we were created by someone who could fulfill these desires, who loves us infinitely, and who is constantly inviting us to respond to his love. When we respond to this love with our "yes," we respond freely because without freedom, there can be no love. This freedom, however, is far more rich and vibrant than the mere ability to choose between good and evil, as Msgr. Luigi Giussani noted in his book, "The Religious Sense": "Freedom, for the human being, is the possibility, the capacity, the responsibility to be fulfilled … [it] is the experience of the truth of ourselves."

Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, decisions we make that bring us closer to him, enable us to become more fully ourselves and more fully human. It is only in our relationship with love himself, one which permeates our lives and transforms us and our daily actions, that we find fulfillment and satisfaction. Thus, as Abraham Lincoln allegedly stated, "freedom is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought." Yet even this basic principle is now being ignored by the federal government.

God gives man freedom. The Declaration of Independence recognized this fundamental truth: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." The government does not bestow these rights, but has the obligation to protect them. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment acknowledges this same right: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (emphasis added). In the 1963 case of School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, the Supreme Court stated that "the Free Exercise Clause … withdraws from legislative power, state and federal, the exertion of any restraint on the free exercise of religion. Its purpose is to secure religious liberty in the individual by prohibiting any invasions thereof by civil authority" (emphasis added). This free exercise of religion acknowledges the freedom to respond to God's love with our "yes," thereby acting in accord with our human nature.

Yet, despite the fact that "the right of man to religious freedom has its foundation in the dignity of the person," as identified in Dignitatis Humanae, the very government that is charged with protecting this right is now claiming the illegitimate authority to force people to act in violation of their consciences. In failing to acknowledge the right to choose good, the government fails to acknowledge the right to love. In failing to acknowledge the right to love, it fails to acknowledge what it means to be human.

Anne McGuire is a staff assistant for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.For more information on the bishops' pro-life activities, please visit