Between Amens — Our First Freedom

Dr. Karen Shadle

Religious liberty is often called our “first freedom.” It is the very first thing mentioned in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” More importantly, religious liberty is our most fundamental and personal freedom from which all other freedoms flow. Without the autonomy to hold one’s own beliefs and follow one’s conscience, other rights and freedoms — like the freedom of speech, the right to vote, the right to peacefully protest, and the right to own property — ring hollow. 

James Madison called the conscience “the most sacred of all property.” It needs therefore to be protected from tyranny with particular vigor.  We must advocate for laws in this country that allow us to do religious things — to assemble, to pray in public spaces, to run our own hospitals and schools – and also laws that permit us to not do — to conscientiously not cooperate in that which is intrinsically evil. 

It may seem awkward to speak of religious identity and national identity in the same breath. After all, as Catholics, we proclaim Christ as the sovereign king over all peoples. Nevertheless, we cannot be naïve about the fact that public governance is a part of the Christian life. 

According to Pew Research Center, 41 countries throughout the world have laws that severely limit religious freedom, making it illegal to profess a particular faith or to own a bible, for example. Simply attending Mass is a subversive and dangerous act in many places. Many martyrs have died as a result of governments harshly restricting the free exercise of their faith. Sadly, the age of martyrdom is not over, as Catholics continue to face persecution in many parts of the world. 

For average Americans, this reality can seem far removed from our daily existence. As a result, we tend to take our religious freedom for granted. Free to do anything, many choose to do nothing. Free to believe anything, many choose to believe nothing. This is the blight of secularism. 

In this month of remembering our nation’s founding, there are some unique opportunities to celebrate religious liberty. The National Eucharistic Procession, which passed through the Archdiocese of Louisville July 4-9, continues on toward its destination. The procession with Jesus through public streets is a sort of peaceful protest against secularism. It is a bold profession of our belief in the power of the Eucharist to change the world. The four pilgrimage routes will converge July 17-21, as tens of thousands of Catholics will gather in Indianapolis for the first National Eucharistic Congress in this country in 83 years. This Eucharistic Congress, like others before it, is a political act. The Eucharist is more than a private devotion; it is a public commitment to building an ethical and just society. 

Pray for the success of these events and for the flourishing of religious freedom. The USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty sums it up nicely: “We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both.

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