Bishops from the dioceses of Baltimore, Washington and Military Services were in Rome this month, making their requisite ad limina visit to Rome to pray at the tomb of St. Peter and renew their allegiance to his successor.
It was a religious duty they were observing, but the Pope chose to speak to them not of prayer or sacraments, but about threats to religious liberty, the proper relations between Church and State and the role of the Catholic citizen in a secular nation.
His appeal to all Catholics to defend religious liberty could not have been more timely, as the very next day the Obama Administration announced new regulations denying any conscience exemption whatever from the requirement that private institutions, including religious ones, pay for abortifacient drugs and elective sterilizations in their health care plans.
The new rule so crudely and obviously violates the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free exercise of religion as the first of our civil liberties, that Catholics of all stripes have risen as one against it. There aren’t many documents the president of the USCCB and Sr. Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association (who famously bucked the bishops to promote Obamacare) could sign jointly, but there they are in the press release, united in fierce objection to an unjust regulation.**
Why would anyone distort the Bill of Rights to compel private institutions built by private citizens to buy and distribute products that poison conscience?
It’s because increasingly “freedom of religion” is coming to be understood as a shriveled “freedom of worship.” You may attend any house of worship you like, and you may believe as you wish: in private. The right to live in accordance with your beliefs is something else again.
The Holy See is familiar with this contraction of civil liberties, since it champions the rights of Christians all over the world, particularly in Islamic nations, which claim to honor religious liberty, even while compelling Christians to observe Islamic law and making it a crime to speak openly of their faith.
This is why the First Amendment guarantees free exercise of religion, not merely freedom of religion.
A wholesome separation of Church and state does not mean, “Shut up.” The Pope sees this clearly.
“The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.”
He’s clear also that the Church has no right to impose its faith on others. To the extent ideas flowing from or undergirded by faith are embodied in the law, it has to be because they are true by nature of the dignity of each human person or because religious citizens have persuaded their fellows that they are sound.
“The Church’s witness . . . is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square.”
The Constitution of itself is insufficient to defend civil rights, however. Noble as it is, it is merely a tool which can be put to the service of wildly differing notions of liberty. What gives it its content—or used to—is the Declaration of Independence.
As Benedict notes, “At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing.”
Praising our nation’s founding, he goes on to say, “In America, that consensus, as enshrined in your nation’s founding documents, was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God.”
Echoing Proverbs 25:11, Lincoln once described the Declaration as an apple of gold within a picture of silver (the Constitution). “The picture was made not to conceal or destroy the apple, but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture.”
For Lincoln and the Founders, the Constitution serves and secures the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness bestowed on each of us by nature’s God.
Benedict notes that the moral consensus embodied by the Declaration is eroding. The political battles for the right to life, the defense of marriage and the free exercise of religion are the body politic asking ourselves whether we are still committed to the moral principles of the Declaration or will now put the Constitution at the service of a radically different conception of the human person.
** Editor’s Note: Since this column was penned, Sr. Carol Keehan has accepted a “compromise” that the bishops reject, putting them once again at odds. You can read the bishops’ reason for rejecting the compromise here.
This article was first published at Catholic News Agency