Catholics must be advocates of religious freedom daily, for all faiths

By Mark Schmidt
Special to The Witness

The Fortnight for Freedom comes to a close on July 4. This should not mean that once it is over we move on to other things until next year’s Fortnight. The Fortnight for Freedom is not intended to be a publicity stunt, or a two-week advertisement for the Catholic Church. It ought to challenge us, first and foremost, to look at the world in a way that shows us our faith-life is an intentional choice and one that we ought to participate in on a daily basis, privately and publicly. The cause for religious freedom should not be relegated to the status of a political ideal but should be understood as a basic human right, one that we should strive to ensure for all people, not just those of our own faith, and not just in the confines of our home or our place of worship. Pope Francis reminds us of this in the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World):

“The Synod Fathers spoke of the importance of respect for religious freedom, viewed as a fundamental human right. This includes ‘the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public.’ A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques.” (EG, 255)

The freedom to choose one’s own religion and to practice it both privately and publicly without unjust intervention from the government must be respected in our laws. However, we must also respect it in our daily lives. Just as we desire to live according to our faith, we ought not promote or participate in ways that unjustly limit the religious freedom of other faith traditions. It would be wrong to argue for religious freedom for ourselves and unjustly deny it for others. For example, there have been many attempts across the country to prevent our Muslim brothers and sisters from building houses of worship in communities where they reside. We must remember that as Catholics we also faced the same difficulties earlier in our own nation’s history (and sadly to this day in some parts of the country this still happens) as we tried to build places for our liturgies and for our schools. We can support other’s right to freedom of religion without compromising our own faith; in fact, it is our faith that obliges us to ensure that such human rights are respected for all people of good will. It is our duty to defend the right to free exercise of religion. The bishops remind us of this by stating it in the “Formation of Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” this way:

“The right to exercise religious freedom publicly and privately by individuals and institutions along with freedom of conscience need to be constantly defended. In a fundamental way, the right to free expression of religious beliefs protects all other rights. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities — to one another, to our families, and to the larger society. Rights should be understood and exercised in a moral framework rooted in the dignity of the human person.” (FCFFC, 49)

We might say that our right to religious freedom carries with it a two-fold responsibility.

The first is that we actually practice our faith; that we seek an authentic relationship with God guided by the wisdom and sacraments of the Catholic Church and that we participate in the evangelization of the faith through charitable means. The second is a responsibility to respect the faith traditions of others. Though we do not agree that all faith traditions ultimately lead to salvation, we do believe that the freedom that God gave each of us to choose to love him applies equally to the freedom to choose whether or not we shall respond to the Gospel message as Christians, or we choose a different, less complete faith.

So, as we wrap up this Fortnight for Freedom, let us continue the message that it offered us year-round. Let us strive for respect for religious freedom in our laws to be recognized; let us not take for granted the freedom we do have allowing us to live out and share our beliefs by engaging in a deeper relationship with God through the sacraments, prayer and social action; let us be more mindful of the love we should have to all peoples of faith and even those of no faith that by our example we may bring them to Christ; and let us recognize that we are a people of faith, hope and love – faith in God and his church, hoping for our salvation and the salvation of all, and loving all those we encounter with the love of Jesus Christ.

Schmidt is director of Respect Life and Social Justice for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

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