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Religious liberty and its basics

We live in an age that misapprehends basic facts about the human person. Unborn babies are treated as non-persons and waste to be discarded. One’s biological sex is considered malleable and changeable at the drop of a hat. Marriage has been eviscerated of its meaning. Countless in poverty live without their most basic needs being met. Technology is a controlling feature of everyday life, alienating us from our very land, families, and communities. The list goes on.

In an age that misconstrues so many basic facts about reality, it is important to return to the ABCs on any given topic. For example, when it comes to evangelization, it can be easy to dive deep into the nuances of moral theology or the personalities of popes. But instead, we often must return to the fundamentals of the Gospel in the faithless age we live in: God became man to free us from the bondage of our sins, that we might have eternal life with Him, if we but accept the gift of His saving grace.

Likewise, with religious freedom, we need to return to the basics, the deeper “why?”s of religious liberty. These basics form the philosophical and theological foundations that undergird a proper understanding of religious liberty. When these basics are misconstrued, we end up with problematic ideas. These ideas then have a controlling effect in our laws and broader cultural conversations, and inevitably lead people astray. For example, a false notion regularly peddled around these days is the idea that religious freedom is merely the freedom to worship within the four walls of one’s church.

So, what are the basics? Paragraphs 2104-2109 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides—unsurprisingly—a solid overview. While I encourage you to read these paragraphs yourself, four key points are worth reviewing.

First, religious freedom flows from the dignity of the human person. The human person is created with the gifts of intellect and will. We have the desire and ability to know. And we have the capacity to appropriately respond to the truth we come to know. Human knowledge is not restricted to mundane, practical truths, like the square root of 9 or what temperature should you cook a medium-rare steak to.

Our God-given dignity is such that it “enables [us] freely to assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order.” In other words, we can know the truth about the life’s deeper questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? To where are we going? Who created us? And what kind of honor and worship do we owe our Creator?

Second, the human person cannot have their religious conscience coerced or unduly restricted. To be able to think freely about religious truths implies that one should be able to freely act—within reason—on those convictions. Religious freedom is practically meaningless if it only means you can think about things divine but prohibits actions in pursuit of the divine.

Third, religious freedom entails a respect for diverse religions. As the Catechism mentions, these religious practices can “reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.’” While religious freedom should not been seen as a “moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error,” religious freedom does acknowledge and respect the various ways by which a human person finds their way to the divine.

Fourth, because it pertains to the pursuit of divine truth, religious freedom aims to bring about devotion and adherence to the “one Church of Christ” which is the Catholic Church. Christians have a particular duty in the exercise of their religious freedom to “awaken in each man the love of the true and the good” and to “show[] forth the kingship of Christ over all creation.” In other words, religious truth is not relative or pluralistic, all religious truth is ultimately aimed at knowing and loving the Triune God.

Whenever we find ourselves engaging in discussions about religious liberty, we should stop and ask ourselves whether the discussion properly conceives of religious liberty. Laying these foundations is critical to building a democracy which reveres religious freedom as the first freedom in our constitutional order. With that said, enjoy Religious Freedom Week!

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