Today marks the beginning of the Fortnight for Freedom, a special two-week period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action focused on the topic of religious freedom, a core principle in both Christian and American traditions. On the Marriage: Unique for a Reason blog, we’ll be exploring in a particular way the connections between marriage and religious freedom (also called religious liberty).
Today’s topic: What is religious liberty?
Bl. Pope John Paul II described religious liberty as “the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person” (Centesimus Annus, no. 47). As the Holy Father says, religious liberty has much to do with human dignity, specifically with the dignity that men and women have because of their ability – and responsibility – to freely seek the truth, assent to it, and conform their lives to it. The key Second Vatican Council declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (DH), put it this way:
“It is in accordance with their dignity as persons – that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility – that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth” (DH, no. 2).
In other words, religious liberty is a consequence of man’s identity as truth-seeker: “the right to religious freedom has its foundation…in man’s very nature” (DH, no. 2); “every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious” (DH, no. 3). Society and government, as ordered to the human person, are bound to respect everyone’s right “to live in the truth of [their] faith,” as Bl. John Paul II put it.
What does religious liberty look like?
Because free assent to truth lies at the heart of man’s identity, the Church maintains that “nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits” (CCC, no. 2106, quoting DH, no. 2). Note the important descriptors offered here: man cannot be compelled to act against his faith, nor can he be prohibited from acting in harmony with his faith. Also, these considerations apply to both private and public actions. In other words, religious freedom is more than just “freedom to worship” or freedom to practice one’s faith alone. It also includes the ability to live out one’s faith in community and in the public sphere. This, too, is a consequence of human nature, as Dignitatis Humanae points out:
“The social nature of man itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion…Injury, therefore, is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society” (DH, no. 3).
Later, Dignitatis Humanae specifies that “the social nature of man and the very nature of religion afford the foundation of the right of men freely to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable, and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense” (DH, no. 4). By extension, religious liberty applies not only to individuals but also to groups of individuals who practice their faith together (a Church, ecclesial community, or other religious organization).
In conclusion, religious liberty is not an arbitrary right or a “privilege” generously (or grudgingly) bestowed by the government. It is something owed to each and every person due to the human person’s ability and responsibility to order his or her life and action in accordance with his or her faith.
- Frequently Asked Questions on Religious Liberty from the Fortnight for Freedom website: webpage or PDF handout
- Reflections on Dignitatis Humanae from the Fortnight for Freedom website
Stay tuned for more about marriage and religious freedom!