Pope Benedict Defends Religious Liberty

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

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  • Greg Groebner

    The 1st Amendement of the US Constitution is not correct as a general principle, although it may have been the best that the Founders could do within their particular historical situation.  The current action by the  USA bishops in
    resisting the Obama mandates is admirable in intent, but lacking in coherence by
    its emphases on “freedom of conscience” and “religious liberty”.   In so doing, a kind of false god is created
    out of a secondary concept, as if it is “my conscience” that all must submit to,
    rather than “the truth”.  In reality, the
    state has no obligation to respect all consciences nor all religions – and
    indeed, cannot really accommodate them all, without contradicting its own laws
    and constitutions and internal coherence. This current tyranny should not be about the notion of a so-called (and,
    really, impossible) “religious liberty” — but because of the simple fact that
    the Obama administration is WRONG.  If it
    really is “conscience” that is of utmost importance, then Obama merely needs to
    say “Well, bishops, I don’t want to offend my own religious convictions and
    sense of justice and conscience, and so I think you should also pay your share
    into my plan to help everyone with healthcare.”
    As far as the public good is concerned, the principle
    issue is truth or falsity or at least plausibility.  From this perspective, the principles of
    “religious liberty” and “freedom of conscience” are inviolable only in the case
    that the conscience is correct and the religion is true.  Jews, for instance, very commonly consider
    the laws against abortion as an imposition of Christian morality and an
    infringement upon their religious liberties as Jews.  Does that mean that they should be allowed to
    express their corrupt practices?
    By its nature, the Catholic Church has a God-given
    charter to have liberty to perform Her mission.    This has nothing to do with undue coercion
    and only a little to do with burning heretics; but it has everything to do with
    whose rules become part of the public sphere and form the predominant
    culture.  (It should be noted that there
    are religious groups that because of their historic and legal character, do have
    rights to homeland, legitimate customs, etc.; while others may be tolerated for
    the sake of public order.)  But “religious
    freedom” in itself has no intrinsic value, unless a reasoned claim – or proven
    miracle – can be made that the religion has a basis of legitimacy in either fact
    or ancient custom.  The state has no
    obligation whatsoever to to change itself and make a detour because of someone’s
    particular whim of conscience, unless some basis in real truth can be
    established for the decision of that conscience (although it can be the case
    that for practical concerns of maintaining public order, some error can be
    Many modern political problems are directly related to
    the fact that we no longer have an official vision of an idealized state
    consonant with a Christian mission.  We
    have ceased to plan and organize for the extension of the
    Kingdom of
    We have willingly tied our own hands in believing that Church and State
    should not plan and work toward the Common Good.  In the absence of this godly planning,
    however, others still did plan and scheme and work toward milestones and goals
    using the apparatus of the state to achieve their aims.  They have been given an open playing field,
    and now we are surprised to see that they do not play nicely.

  • pnyikos

    I’ve run into abortion rights fanatics  who say that “the Declaration of Independence has as much legal status as  a piece of toilet paper.”  They conveniently ignore that the 9th amendment recognizes rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution, and it stands to reason that among the most important are the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

  • Barbosa Vicki

    I believe that the fact that the current administration is wrong is irrelevant to the current uproar. Even if they were right in maintaining that everyone has a right to “reproductive rights”, the Constitution does not allow them to infringe on the free exercise of anyone’s religion by requiring Catholics to pay for abortifacients. They cannot, for example, make a law that requires adult Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept blood transfusions against their beliefs, even though others might think the Witness position is erroneous.
    It is not “conscience” that must be protected, it is each person’s exercise of his own conscience — I am not obligated to follow President Obama’s conscience, but I am obligated to follow my own, and the Constitution guarantees that right.

  • Greg Groebner

    he Constitution cannot guarantee anyone’s freedom of conscience and
    simultaneously promote justice.  It is self-contradictory, and the bishops
    would be wise to stay away from it.  The Jews, for instance, have little
    problem with abortion, until the moment that the child’s head emerges (at which
    point the child has to be protected).  Indeed, laws against abortion are
    seen by Jews as an imposition of Christian morality and an infringement of
    religious liberty and freedom of conscience and action.

    To repeat, the Constitution cannot promote justice and freedom of conscience
    simultaneously.  The example above should illustrate this point clearly, I