The recent launching of Obamacare has created much talk in Catholic circles about our “religious liberty” being compromised. Parishioners in the Diocese of Metuchen and throughout the country have read bulletin inserts or heard talking points at Sunday Mass about the ramifications of the Obamacare legislation.
Over the years, federal law in the United States has generally protected the religious and moral rights of individuals and institutions. Current political agendas, however, are now being introduced seeking to replace the teaching of the Church with a more secular ideology.
The goal of the recent United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ campaign was to help ensure that the cost of abortion, contraception and other immoral practices were not imposed upon taxpayers. Such evils being served up as viable alternatives to authentic rights to life, marriage, and matters pertaining to religious liberty, support unjust legislation that force people to violate their moral and religious convictions.
Lost in the rhetoric is the basic fact that our right to religious liberty is not something invented but something discovered as a God-given right. Religious liberty includes but is not limited to the “right to worship.” In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to redefine and confine “religious liberty” to the “right to worship.” True religious liberty includes the right to live one’s faith beyond the walls of the church buildings where we assemble for worship.
Prayer of course is the ultimate source of our strength because without God, we can do nothing; with God, however, all things are possible. As our nations national motto so aptly states, “In God we trust.”
As an emigrant to the United States, I find this inscription on the American coin most appealing. Standing inside historical Faneuil Hall in Boston and raising my hand for the formal swearing-in ceremony while saying the pledge of allegiance, the words “In God we trust” were planted as firmly in my heart as they are pressed firmly on countless coinage in every town and city across the USA.
“In God we trust” summarizes well the tone and intent of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Dignitatis Humanae (hereafter referred to as DH), one of the final four documents of the Council promulgated on Dec. 7, 1965. Focusing on the dignity of the human person, the declarations’ title is literally translated into English as “the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in religious matters.”
While affirming the Church’s support for the protection of religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae identifies the first value “proper to the human spirit” as “the free exercise of religion in society” (DH, 1). It begins with a conversation about the “dignity of the human person” and how the contemporary person has become more focused on this matter of “human dignity.” In the words of the document, this dignity is “impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness” of humanity in our current culture. In short, “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person” (DH, 2). Similar language is repeated in article 9: “the right of humans to religious freedom has its foundation in the dignity of the person.”
This is the substance of the platform that the bishops of the United States referenced almost 50 years later when they embarked upon their campaign for the protection of the religious rights of Catholics and other men and women in other faith communities.
While Dignitatis Humanae might seem like the “go to” document for the Church’s position on religious freedom, surprisingly, it is filled with contradictions and odd repetitions. Could it be that the turmoil of the 1960’s found its way into this conciliar text? Thankfully, the footnotes in the document helps offer a bridge for the declaration to be received positively by referencing previous, more familiar documents that articulate authentic Catholic social teaching. As well, as a “declaration” this document is, by definition, the last in the hierarchy of Council documents following constitutions and decrees, “… more likely to be revised with time.” (Cf. Papal and Curial Announcements, The Jurist. Vol. L. 1990, pp. 102-125).
When reading the declaration one suddenly feels drawn into a debate that is ongoing between two different factions within the Church or within theological circles. Then there is the tension between the demand for “tolerance” toward religion(s) and the desire for religious presence in all aspects of civil life. Are such accommodations requested solely for the Catholic Church or for all religions, Christian and non-Christian? The declaration suggests the latter.
Then there is the other uncertainty as to whether the “freedom of speech” and “religious freedom” that the Council Fathers discuss pertains to license rather than responsibility. The lack of specificity leaves the matter technically left unanswered. What remains apparent is that the Council Fathers make it crystal clear that everyone ought to enjoy full freedom to express his or her religious beliefs without being forced to embrace, abandon or remain in a particular faith community. Article 13 is the only place in the declaration that makes explicit reference to the rights of the Catholic Church explaining: “… the Church should enjoy that full measure of freedom which her care for the salvation of men requires” (DH, 13). It seems that this “full measure of freedom” is something different from the freedom all religions are assumed to enjoy but there exists a lack of clarity.
There is also the matter of “freedom to reject the faith.” The document asserts: “the doctrine of the Church that no one is to be coerced into faith has always stood firm” (DH, 12). Earlier the document states: “No one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will” (DH, 10). The next section explains: “the disciples of Christ strove to convert men to faith in Christ as the Lord; not, however, by the use of coercion” (DH, 11).
It is unfortunate that Dignitatis Humanae is not consistent about the limits of human freedom or the free exercise of religion in society. We rely on previous Church documents and later ones for such specificity which, curiously from the outset, Dignitatis Humanae acknowledges: “[The Council Fathers] search into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church — the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.” (HD,1).
Dignitatis Humanae is not a Council document that is referenced for its prophetic stance or its success in articulating the faith of the Church in new, more carefully conceptualized language. However, it reiterates the fact that there are different voices, even in the Church, seeking to emphasize a perspective that is a better, more sensible path to follow. While this is one of those documents that focuses more on image over substance, it manages to summarize, especially in its opening article, that the substance of the Church’s teaching transcends any one document. The campaign embarked upon by the United States Conference of Bishops almost 50 years after the publication of Dignitatis Humanae illustrates how far-reaching such a declaration, even one that often lacks coherency, can bear such fine fruit.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit