Article 51 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Father John G. Hillier
Religious freedom is a theme that continues to be debated and addressed by presidential candidates and other politicians to the present day. Religious freedom is also the major reason why people first fled Europe to settle in the New World. The spirit of religious faith was everywhere manifest in the early colonies. The Pilgrims, saved from starvation that first terrible winter of 1620-1621, set aside a day of thanksgiving to God for their survival. More than 100 years later religious faith was again affirmed with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which are based on our belief in God and our dependence on him.
Against this historical truth, that our nation is founded on religious freedom, are Americans who reject this right insisting that religion is born of ignorance, and will disappear when people embrace a more mature outlook on life. Some say that religion is a manifestation of fear, cowardice, and a desire to escape reality. Others even reject religion, viewing it as an excuse for lack of accomplishment and drive, the opiate of the downtrodden keeping them satisfied with the unsatisfying things of life.
Then there are those who belong to religious sects that are dangerous because they demand absolute blind faith. Other sects satisfy a side of humanity’s nature through fundamentalist teaching and indoctrination.
Atheists and proponents of false religion propose only half-truths or they miss the point entirely. True religion involves the whole person. True religion puts the whole person to work. True religion satisfies our emotions, our mind, our will, our imagination and senses; our whole body and soul. When you hear it said that religious faith is the problem or religious freedom ought to be confined to places of worship, we can safely reply that such opinions are conceived by those who have missed the point entirely.
In justice, we must recognize God as our Creator and Lord. We must not only worship him “in places of worship” but freely serve him “in the public square” in order to fulfill the very purpose for which he made us.
By analogy it can be said that Jesus was “rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes” (ccc 572) in a similar way as religious faith and freedom are rejected by the atheists and others who demand a special brand of religion. As the Catechism points out, from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, “certain Pharisees and partisans of Herod together with priests and scribes agreed together to destroy him” (ccc 574). In fact, accusations are leveled against Jesus including “blasphemy and false prophecy, religious crimes which the Law punished with death by stoning” (ccc 574). The evidence they put forward include certain acts of Jesus like expelling demons, forgiving sins, healing on the sabbath and being friendly toward tax collectors and public sinners.
To be clear, Jesus embraces some of the long-held teachings of the religious leaders who reject him including:
- the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23-34; Luke 20:39).
- certain forms of piety like almsgiving, fasting and prayer (Matthew 6:18).
- the custom of addressing God as Father (John 5:18)
- the centrality of the commandment to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34).
From the point of view of many in Israel, however, Jesus seems to be “acting against essential institutions of the Chosen People” (ccc 576) such as:
- submission to the whole of the Law in its written commandments and, for the Pharisees, in the interpretation of oral tradition.
- the centrality of the Temple at Jerusalem as the holy place where God’s presence dwells in a special way.
- faith in the one God whose glory no human can share.
It would seem that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the context in which he clarifies his teachings. Here he states: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
In Jesus, “the Law no longer appears engraved on tables of stone but upon the heart of the Servant who becomes a covenant to the people” (ccc 580).
In Jesus, “the same Word of God that had resounded on Mount Sinai to give the written Law to Moses, made itself heard anew on the Mount of the Beatitudes” (ccc 581).
The New Testament makes it clear that the Jewish people and their spiritual leaders viewed Jesus as a rabbi. For example, he often argued “within the framework of rabbinical interpretation of the Law” (ccc 581). In the end, however, Jesus found himself confronted by certain teachers of the Law who did not accept his interpretation of the Law, “guaranteed though it was by the divine signs that accompanied it” (ccc 582). This was the case especially with the sabbath laws, “violated by serving God and neighbor” (ccc 582) through such things as healing the sick.
In our own day, Christ continues to be violated every time religious freedom is violated or otherwise compromised.
Our obligation to practice religion is clear and unmistakable when we consider the very heart of religion. We have to acknowledge that we belong to God, that we owe everything to him. Would it not be ridiculous for a manufactured item to deny its brand, its maker? Everything that is made bears the mark of its maker, a mark that it cannot get away from. In practicing authentic religion, we are simply giving God what belongs to him.