At this critical moment in history, there are two social justice priorities for the Catholic Church in the United States: the defense of life at all stages and in all conditions, and the defense of religious freedom for all. During this Fortnight for Freedom, in which the U.S. bishops are calling all Catholics to pray and work for religious freedom, it’s important to reflect on the linkage between these two great causes.
As the language of the First Amendment to the Constitution indicates, religious freedom in the United States has always been understood as one of a cluster of fundamental freedoms—spheres of free thought and action essential to individual liberty and civil society. That idea of constitutionally limited government—a government that makes no theological judgments (religious freedom), that does not control the media (freedom of the press), that does not control thought and culture (free speech), and that does not occupy all the “space” in society (freedom of assembly)—rests, philosophically, on the premise of fundamental human equality.
Yet the premise is counterintuitive. We know that all men and women are not created equal in intelligence, beauty, wealth, linguistic skills, or ability to hit a curveball. Everything we see, every day, everywhere, speaks of human inequality. How, then, to sustain a constitutional order of freedom on the basis of human equality? Is equality a pious fiction, a noble lie we tell ourselves?
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson tried to solve this problem by reference to a fundamental human equality, and to “self-evident” rights reflecting that equality, that were “endowed” in us by “Nature, and Nature’s God.” Today, when the idea of divinely constructed “human nature” has disappeared from our high culture (and a lot of our law), that argument is under severe pressure. Jews and Christians can argue that their commitment to the premise of civil equality derives from obedience to the commands of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, in various forms of the Golden Rule; but will such an argument convince non-believers?
In his 1993 encyclical, “Veritatis Splendor” (“The Splendor of Truth”), Blessed John Paul II proposed an imaginative solution to this problem, which is fundamental to all democracies and especially acute in democracies soaked in the solvents of aggressive secularism and its companion, radical skepticism. There is a way in which all men and women, unequal-in-every-other-aspect-of-their-lives, are equal, the Pope suggested: “Before the demands of morality all are absolutely equal,” he wrote. Everyone is equal before the demands of the fundamental moral law that we can know by reason.
What are those demands? What are those moral truths? Lying is wrong. Theft of what rightly belongs to another is wrong. Everyone must honor promises, vows, and legal contracts. All must be free to seek truth in the depths of conscience, without social, cultural, or governmental coercion.
And the inviolability of every innocent human life must be respected from its beginning to its end.
These fundamental moral truths can be known by anyone willing to think carefully. Recognizing them does not require any prior theological commitments (although belief in the God of the Bible certainly shortens the path toward those truths). These truths are, if you will, built into us. We do not invent them; we discover them.
The fundamental democratic premise of the radical, inalienable, civil equality of all citizens is at the root of the American constitutional order—the American way of being a political community. That premise is no pious fiction, no noble lie. It can be “demonstrated” and defended, by reason. And that defense leads inexorably to the right to life as the primordial human right, and the right of religious freedom as the “first freedom” in the political order.
In defending religious freedom and the right to life from conception until natural death, U.S. Catholics are not just defending what is “ours.” We defend America. We seek to give America a new birth of freedom, rightly understood. We act, not as sectarians, but as free citizens. We act on behalf of all, and on behalf of truth.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.