The popular understanding of religious freedom is the ability to attend the worship service of your choice on a regular basis. But is that a full definition?
In Dignitatis Humanae, The Second Vatican Council declared “that 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 no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. . . that 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. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.” (emphasis mine)
It should be clear, then, that religious freedom is about more than freedom of worship. Yes, in America we are blessed to be able to gather to pray with fellow believers without fear—something we would do well to remember is denied to many people in the world. But true faith demands more from us. We must also be free to exercise this faith in the public square. Our faith is supposed to animate everything we do.
As the USCCB wrote in a statement a few years ago, “Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas.”
I have blogged on this before. Even though as any reader knows I am a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act, I was NOT a fan of the contraceptive mandate and I wrote about that here. I have also written about our duty to welcome the stranger and how some of the former administration’s policies threatened that.
Vatican documents acknowledge the right of the state to regulate the exercise of religion in the interests of the public good. A recent example of how fraught that can be is the limits on gatherings that were imposed during the height of the pandemic as public health measures—something I fully supported. I think the danger to the Church from limits on believers’ ability to act in the public square is by far the greater concern. Non-believers who ask us to confine our beliefs to our houses of worship do not really understand what faith demands of us.
Catholics must also be wary of limitations being placed on adherents to other faiths, even ones whose practices may seem alien to us. We must defend their freedom if we wish our own to remain protected.
This post was inspired by Montse Alvarado’s Talk in the OSV Talks series, a series of topics from prominent Catholic leaders to spark discussion, explore new or re-explore old approaches, and inspire creative thinking, all from the heart of the Church. Ms. Alvarado is VP and Executive Director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths.”