Parochial Vicars Corner
Religious Freedom is worth praying for. Noticeably, my St. Michael prayer at the end of every Mass is dedicated “for Religious Freedom in our nation.” This began in 2011 when I was parochial vicar at St. Veronica’s parish in Chantilly. The Bishop’s office had sent an email to the priests requesting support for the “Fortnight for Freedom.” The fortnight was an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to raise awareness about religious freedom and to promote its preservation through prayer and activism. This has become an annual event normally ending on July 4th, our national holiday, celebrating our freedom as a nation and people. The Bishop’s conference has also asked dioceses throughout the United States to observe a week of Religious Freedom coinciding with the feast of our patron St. Thomas More, June 22nd. His exercise of freedom of conscience cost him his life with his beheading on July 6th, 1535.
What does the U.S. Constitution say? The First Amendment states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
An established religion, such as The Church of England, was what the framers of the Constitution wanted to avoid. At one time the Anglican church was the established church in the colony of Virginia. A 1624 law mandated Virginians worship in the Anglican Church and support its upkeep with their taxes. Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists and Jews were forced to support a church and clergy contrary to their own opinions and views. Jesuit priests would secretly cross into Virginia from Maryland (originally a Catholic colony) to administer Mass and the sacraments to Catholics in Virginia who were not allowed freedom of worship until 1781.
The framers were also determined to enable citizens to practice their faith and worship without interference from the state. Both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson collaborated in authoring and passing the “Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” in 1786. It stated:
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions on matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or effect their civil capacities.”
James Madison wrote in the “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” in 1785 that:
“We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the Institution of Civil Society and that religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” He spoke of these rights as “unalienable rights.”
Unalienable meaning, rights that cannot be given or taken away. In other words, rights that are natural to man.
What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church say? Paragraph 2108 of the Catechism states:
“The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the judicial order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right.”
In so stating the church recognizes several things. First, liberty or freedom is not defined as “license” to do as one pleases, so called freedom from constraint or restraint. Additionally, liberty is only free if it conforms to the truth. “What is truth?” (Qui es veritas) says Pontius Pilate.
We know as Catholics that Christ is truth. Ironically, Pilate had truth Himself standing before him. And, the catechism recognizes that there are just limits to religious freedom. Therefore, some actions are impermissible as just. Citizens practicing human sacrifice would be prohibited from such an action due to its manifest unjustness to the person sacrificed, whether they are willing participants or not. Paragraph 2109 discusses this further in saying:
“The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a “public order” conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner.” The “due limits” which are inherent in it must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirement of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with “legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order.”
Perhaps we should be praying for “Political Prudence.” All the virtues seem to be in short supply these days, Prudence in particular. The objective moral order is the goal. Pray we achieve this.
So much in one prayer. It is important for us to pray for and support Religious Liberty. Freedoms and liberties can be taken away. The framers of the constitution understood this in providing for religious liberty as a key amendment to the document. Societies can be more or less free, more or less just, depending on the individuals comprising that society. Virtuous individuals will tend toward political virtue, non-virtuous ones will not. We each have a part to play in the building up of a Just, Free, Virtuous society that enables the human person to flourish.
Oremus pro invicem,
Fr. Charles Smith