Teaching our Faith

Faithful citizenship and religious liberty

The issue of religious liberty has been in the news often lately, especially as Catholic institutions struggle to deal with the health insurance mandates from the federal Department of Health and Human Resources. This debate raises questions about the role of religion in public life.

The document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship states the principles involved clearly in n. 11: “Some question whether it is appropriate for the Church to play a role in political life.

However, the obligation to teach about moral values that should shape our lives…is central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ. Moreover, the United States Constitution protects the rights of individual believers and religious bodies to participate and speak out without governmental interference, favoritism, or discrimination. Civil law should fully recognize and protect the Church’s right, obligation, and opportunities to participate in society without being forced to abandon its central moral convictions. Our nation’s tradition of pluralism is enhanced, not threatened, when religious groups and people of faith bring their convictions and concerns into public life…”

In the midst of this debate, many views have been expressed. Some say that the First Amendment ought to keep religion out of public discourse. In fact, the First Amendment was designed to ensure that no one religion is ensconced as the public religion, and this is a great good. This non-establishment clause precludes us from saying that because a religion says something is enough to establish it as the law of the land.

The other half of the First Amendment is the free exercise clause, which ensures that we can express our convictions freely, limited only by the demands of the common good. The classic exception in the area of free speech is to misuse speech by falsely screaming “fire” in a public space and causing a stampede.

In his book Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia identifies two mistaken directions in our approaches to faith and public life. The first direction treats our faith as a purely private relationship with God. This private faith isolates us and minimizes any influence on the law. Instead, it says: I will live in my little world and do what is right without caring about what others do or ever being accused of imposing on others. Thus, I accept the laws of the land, even if faith and common sense tell me these laws are not just and are not for the ultimate good of all.

A classic expression of this private approach to faith is to say that laws cannot change people; only a conversion of heart can bring about change. Just laws, however, help shape a just culture that makes such conversion more likely and more permanent, and unjust laws harm the innocent and make others more insensitive to their needs, making conversion of heart a longer and more difficult path. In contrast, Catholic social teaching rightly emphasizes Jesus’ statement that the way we treat our brothers and sisters — one at a time and all at once — is an essential aspect of how we relate to God.

The second fallacy, less common today, sees the world as a subordinate order to the church. Recently Pope Benedict XVI has been clear that the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice,” but at the same time “cannot and must not replace the State.” The Church’s role is “to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly” (Deus Caritas Est, 28).

Because of its urgency, the recent debate has focused more narrowly on what religious institutions should and should not be allowed to do. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, however, offers insight on what people of faith bring to our national debates about issues and values.

Our Constitution allows us as good citizens to advocate for the common good in a way that does not deprive our civic and public life of the richness of religious convictions, especially those that also find their foundation in natural law and that are accessible through reason. This exercise of religious freedom must be done with civility and respect, but without it, our understanding of freedom may become shallow and only reflect the lowest common denominators in our culture. Ultimately, our religious freedom will only be ensured when we as citizens responsibly exercise our religious freedom well.

Most Reverend
Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.
Archbishop of Louisville

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