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Posted by on Oct 9, 2012

Human Dignity: The Basis for the Right to Religious Freedom

“The right to religious freedom has its foundation, not in the church or society or the state, but in the very dignity of the human person.”  John Courtney Murray, SJ

Recently some Catholic leaders have been objecting to certain American civil laws and regulations which they see as conflicting with Catholic teaching as a violation of religious freedom rather than as issues of conscience. Conflicts between religious teaching and civil law in the United States have historically been called issues of conscience. For example, Americans who were opposed to war in principle could opt for alternative service as conscientious objectors. Religious freedom was defined as the protection of individuals to worship as they chose. Confusing conscientious objection to state policies with the notion of religious freedom undermines the Church’s obligation to be a sign of contradiction as a witness to the Gospel. It also undermines the value of religious freedom by implying that civil law must incorporate religious teaching and impose it on all. A review of Dignitatis Humanae shows that the Church’s formal teaching authority does not support this misconception of religious freedom.

The dignity of the human person is upheld to the extent that individual conscience, development of new understandings of what it is to be a human being, protection of fundamental rights, and freedom to explore new possibilities are recognized and encouraged for all members of the society. Churches have an important role to play in influencing the conversation, but theirs is not the final word and coercion is not an option. As the Council Fathers noted in Dignitatis Humanae:

In the end, when He completed on the cross the work of redemption whereby He achieved salvation and true freedom for men, He brought His revelation to completion. For He bore witness to the truth, but He refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it. Not by force of blows does His rule assert its claims. (DH #11)

Freedom of religion comes from the dignity of the human person, not from the church or the state. It is not an issue of how many religious tenants of any given faith get written into civil law.  It is a question of the right of people of faith to worship freely and participate in social discourse and in this way move towards a more just society. Freedom of Religion is a right that belongs to every human being, springs from human dignity, and provides the space in which each person is freed to develop his or her conscience and then live justly in accord with its dictates.

Controversies Among Catholics

The relationship between church and state in regard to religious freedom has been the subject of much discussion in the United States in recent months, including what the appropriate role of the Church can be in the process of selection of the next Congress and presidential administration. We have seen bishops speaking out on such diverse issues as federal regulations regarding health care services that must be offered by employer-sponsored health plans, who is eligible to marry whom, how much of the social safety net in a just society can be dismantled to reduce the deficit, and whether wealthier individuals should pay more to maintain the safety net. We have seen “Nuns on the Bus” speaking against budgetary proposals, Cardinals and Bishops threatening excommunication of politicians who vote on issues based on their own conscience and/or on communications received from their constituents. There have been countless interviews and discussions on news media, social media, and comedy shows. Slogans are tossed around and reference made to the 1st Amendment to the Constitution – “Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion,” for just one example. Recently, some bishops have even suggested that Catholics who do not agree with them should abstain from receiving Communion, despite Church teachings regarding the primacy of individual conscience.

The Pre-eminence of Conciliar Documents

All of these voices bring aspects of the challenges faced by a modern, multi-cultural, industrialized society to a level of visibility that was not always seen in the past. Nevertheless, these many voices do not speak for The Church in its most formal, authoritative, teaching role. Only the bishops of the world, from both the Eastern and Western Catholic churches, gathered in Council and representing the people of their dioceses, speak for The Church. Documents of the Councils are the most authoritative teachings of The Church, second only to the books of the Bible. Other teachings are important, including encyclicals, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and pastoral teachings of national Bishops Councils, but they do not supersede works of the Councils. Pastoral letters of individual bishops, writings of theologians, and works from other members of the Church, are the teachings of individuals. At their best, they are rooted in Church teaching and tradition. At their worst, they are simply the opinions of their authors and may be in error, however well-intentioned.

John Courtney Murray, SJ and the First Amendment

John Courtney Murray, SJ, (1904-1967) an American Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, wrote a series of essays regarding the way in which pluralism and religious liberty could be compatible with Catholicism, not just in the United States but throughout the world. The ideas he was proposing were contrary to hundreds of years of tradition – a tradition in which the Church played the role of both civil government and religious institution. This dual role of the Church – governing in both civil and religious realms – began during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and continued well into the 18th century.  Murray, reflecting on the changes seen since the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States separated Church and State, suggested that this separation actually freed the Church to follow its religious mission and teachings regarding human dignity and freedom. For his ground-breaking efforts as a theologian, he was silenced by the Vatican for many years. However, by the time of Vatican II, as adviser to Cardinal Spellman, he drafted the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. This declaration, finalized and approved by the bishops of the Church in Council, was promulgated on December 7, 1965, the last great work of Vatican II. The Council that began its work with the reform of the liturgy ended its work with a new understanding of the source of religious freedom: human dignity itself.

Murray’s insights shed light on the role of religion in addressing questions of public policy today. If freedom of religion indeed comes not from the Church, or society, or the state and is in fact based in human dignity, then certain principles become evident.

    1. The decisions of the state regarding how its members will live with and treat each other are just that — decisions of the state. They are civil issues. When a state decides that members may not kill each other, it is a civil issue. Another state might decide that certain activities (such as infidelity or murder) might justify murder as punishment, including state sponsored murder (capital punishment). That is also a civil issue.
    2. Decisions of religious communities and organizations regarding how their members will live and treat each other are also just that — decisions of religious communities. They are the domain of religious authorities.
    3. Religious leaders and members of religious communities may offer their insights and make decisions in their lives as members of a civil society based on their religious beliefs and values, but those religious beliefs do not govern that society to the extent that they are in conflict with the agreed upon values, standards, and laws of the larger community.
    4. When civil laws provide protections for citizens that are not provided by religious laws, the civil ones generally prevail in a society such as the United States, where separation of church and state are the law. An example of this is seen in the current case in which a group of Amish men and women have been charged and found guilty in civil courts for forcibly cutting the hair and beards of other members of their faith whom they judged to be less faithful to the beliefs and practices of their faith. Their actions have been seen as assault and they were tried for “hate crimes,” in part because the assault was committed in the name of their religion against members of a religion.
    5. Situations in which civil laws prevail are generally limited to issues of protection of life and health, safety of children, and protection of all members of the society from abuse or assault at the hands of others. On most other issues, the separation of church and state allows religious communities to establish their own rules and to follow them.
    6. Some protections of individuals by civil society take precedence over religious practices; others do not. However, the morality of civil law or religious practice must be evaluated according to Church teaching by its effect on the freedom, dignity, and well-being of the human person. The following are some examples of these situations:
      • Communion under both species (bread and wine) is allowed for children, though children may not be served alcohol under most other circumstances.
      • Sexual or other abuse of children is never permitted and must be reported to civil authorities when there is reason to suspect that it may have occurred.
      • Churches may refuse to bless a proposed marital relationship that civil authorities allow. For example, previously validly married individuals whose prior marriage has not been annulled may not re-marry in the Catholic Church. Civil societies do not care whether the Church has annulled a prior marriage or not as long as a civil divorce has been granted to end the prior marriage. A marriage license will be granted if and only if the couple meets the requirements for marriage in that legal  jurisdiction. The question of homosexual marriage would fit under this same principle — issuance of a marriage license would allow civil marriage. Churches would not be required to grant their blessing to the union.
      • Civil society, in the United States, allows only one spouse at a time. This is sometimes called “serial monogamy.” Polygamy is not allowed, whether polygyny (more than one wife) or polyandry (more than one husband). Some religions allow polygamy, but the practice is forbidden by civil law. The practice of polygyny was one of the things that got Mormons in trouble in the early years of their church in the 19th century, for example.
      • So called “honor” killings are not allowed in Western societies, even though this type of murder is required by religious and cultural beliefs in many countries of the world. In some societies, murder of the victim is the norm in situations such as infidelity of a wife or the rape of a wife, daughter, or other female relative. Generally the woman is punished by death at the hands of her husband, father, brother, or other male relative.
      • The refusal of vaccinations or blood transfusions may be allowed, unless such refusal endangers the life of a child.


Reflections from Anthropology

Perhaps the most important insight to be drawn is the one from social cultural anthropology. There are many ways of handling things such as interpersonal relationships, relationships between and among families, the structure of the family, child-rearing, inheritance, property rights, sexual activity, dietary rules, purity codes, and one’s relationship with the transnatural (which we refer to as God or, more broadly, the supernatural). Human beings have been very creative through the centuries in their development of ways to get along with each other and the ways they deal with differences within their communities.

Does this mean that any legally allowable behavior is morally good? Clearly, that is not the case. The “honor” killings noted above, for example, are not behaviors that are morally acceptable even if they are legal in many countries because violence is inflicted on another human being when they are practiced. However, above and beyond such obvious examples, we need to note that exploitation of workers, denial of access to basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, and education, destruction of the environment in pursuit of private profits, and other such activities that have been and/or are still legal are not morally acceptable either. In such cases, religious leaders of all faiths have a role in identifying the immorality of legal activities and working, through their teaching ministry, advocacy, and service to those harmed by such activities, to bring the members of the society to the point of recognizing the injustice and moving to correct it. Within the Church, “womb to tomb” is the phrase used to describe the commitment to support human life in all of its stages as a gift from God.

In a secular society such as the United States, in which church and state are separated by the Constitution, the church may speak and lobby and explain its reasoning on issues. In fact, the Catholic Church should do so. However, the churches do not make the final decisions or the laws that will govern all members of the society. Civil authorities, in turn, do not interfere lightly in the internal affairs of churches. Nevertheless, where the civil rights or the health and well-being of members of the society are threatened or unduly restricted by religious teachings or rules, civil rules take precedence for the protection of “the common good.” This is also in accord with Dignitatis Humane, which states, “…the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare” and later continues, “Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may … join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.” (DH #3,#4)

Working Together for the Common Good – Grounded in Human Dignity

As a matter of tradition and law in the United States, religious and civil governments are strictly separated. As a matter of Canon Law (Catholic Church law), ordained clerics — deacons, priests, bishops — are prohibited from taking an active role in politics and/or telling people how to vote. The same human dignity that is the basis of religious liberty also challenges  individuals to wrestle with issues of public policy and, taking into account the teachings of the Church, form their own consciences, make decisions based on the conclusions they reach, and vote according to their convictions.

In multi-cultural societies, where many divergent sets of religious beliefs are held by their members, all are protected by the legal separation of civil and religious realms. No single set of beliefs and religious laws is imposed on anyone. Together they must work to develop a set of rules and regulations for the common good that protect all. Religious leaders have a role in the process: teaching and helping identify principles that need to be considered. However, no religious group may force its beliefs and practices on the rest of society. Freedom of religion comes from the dignity of the human person. The separation of church and state – the structural form put in place to support freedom of religion – provides for the right of people of faith to worship freely and participate in social discourse and so to move towards a more just society. This freedom springs from human dignity, belongs to all, and opens the possibility for each person to develop his or her conscience in freedom. From that freedom, each one is called to live in a manner that builds up a more just society, promoting the well-being and full potential of each of its members – the common good.

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