The Free Exercise of Religion

This summer the United States Catholic Community will be promoting an event that will raise the issue of religious liberty. This national event, The Fortnight for Freedom, will be fourteen days of prayer and reflection on various civic issues that trouble the Catholic Church over its ability to freely exercise its proper role in society. The Bishops document “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” describes a list of concerns of which the first two include:

  • The federal government’s attempt to define religious institutions as being “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty under the current  HHS mandate for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.
  • State immigration laws that forbid what the government deems “harboring” of undocumented immigrants—and what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants.

As a Catholic theological student I would like to offer my own reflections on religious freedom and the Christian virtue of freedom with this and the following blog post. In offering these posts I will be referring to a famous Catholic American theologian who was instrumental for helping the Catholic Church develop its own understanding of religious liberty. Fr. John Courtney Murray’s seminal work, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, remains a valuable contribution to this ethical principle and he was an important contributor to the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae.

Certainly the Catholic community (along with the general public) will have disagreements over the issues that are raised above but the principle concern that is being addressed with this event is with regards to the Government’s imposed limitations on the appropriate activity of the Church either at the federal or state level. In these two cases the state or federal government are attempting to limit the charitable services of the Church by either defining what a religious institution is or by legally binding the activities of the Church.

When John Courtney Murray was defending the American proposition to religious liberty to the Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council he cited the way that the American Catholic community had benefited from the proper delineation that existed between the role of the Church and State. In this passage he articulates the liberty that the Church enjoins in exercising its spiritual and social ministry.

The American Constitution does not presume to define the Church or in any way to supervise her exercise of authority in pursuit of her own distinct ends. The Church is entirely free to define herself and to exercise to the full her spiritual jurisdiction. It is legally recognized that there is an area which lies outside the competence of government. This area coincides with the area of divine mission of the Church, and within this area the Church is fully independent, immune from interference by political authority.[i]

What is important during this time is to have a constructive conversation on the appropriate roles and relationship between Church in State that honors the principle and spirit of the first amendment. In his 2011 World Day of Peace message Pope Benedict XVI called for “A healthy dialogue between civil and religious institutions” in a way that honors the duty of secular government with the appropriate public dimension or religion. In that same message he describes this appropriate public dimension:

The contribution of religious communities to society is undeniable. Numerous charitable and cultural institutions testify to the constructive role played by believers in the life of society. More important still is religion’s ethical contribution in the political sphere. Religion should not be marginalized or prohibited, but seen as making an effective contribution to the promotion of the common good.[ii]

This then is at the center of the current debate that concerns our Church and its ministries. However one may feel about the Church’s position on immigration or contraception as American Catholics we are called to reflect on the “free exercise” of religion as both responsible citizens and as people of faith. Let us stay engaged and pray for both our political and religious leaders as they confront each other over this important and cherished American liberty.

[i] John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflection on the American Proposition, (Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, MD, 2005) p. 80

About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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3 Responses to The Free Exercise of Religion

  1. pdamiancp says:

    I find myself agreeing that the exemption should extend beyond strictly religious services. There are women, though, who point out that the Church does not seem to have the same reaction when it comes to male contraceptive procedures. If this is correct, then we need to be more consistent as a church. I hope we can get to some real dialogue about this, as it seems too easy for either side to promote some other agenda with this.

    • jdgonzo73 says:

      Thank you Fr. Phil, I too have heard the same thing and if that is the case then you are absolutely right.

      Our church is going to have a benediction this Wednesday that raises the concern for religious liberty. This was brought to light by a well meaning group of concerned parishioners who brought their own political orientation into the mix thinking that this was where the Church stood. Instead I was asked to supply the service with appropriate resources from the USCCB. It is important to clarify this message which could be taken over by single issue groups.

  2. Pingback: Christian Freedom | The Reluctant Prophet

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