Most people are familiar with the Scripture verse that we are to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
But what belongs to God, and what is properly within the jurisdiction of the state?
For much of our country’s history, American Catholics have not had to choose between living out their faith and being faithful citizens. The church does not begrudge our government its rule of law. “Caesar” has and can continue to legitimately claim loyalty from U.S. Catholics.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom.”
“Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the life of the political community” (Nos. 2238-39).
Let us be clear, though. Loyalty to governing authority can never supersede the obedience due to God alone.
In the statement “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the American bishops remind us that “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own belief.”
Religious freedom applies to individuals both privately and publicly, and alone or in association with others.
Faced with challenges to our first freedom or any other important liberties, as we are today, it is the responsibility of Catholics and others to speak out and remind the public about what is and what is not properly Caesar’s.
First Freedom Project
The Minnesota Catholic Conference is launching the “First Freedom Project,” a long-term educational initiative aimed helping Catholics and the public understand the importance of protecting religious liberty for this and future generations.
The First Freedom Project’s initial program will be to support our bishops’ call for a “fortnight for freedom,” a special period of prayer, study, catechesis and public action from June 21 to July 4 that will emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of religious liberty. (see U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.”)
MCC has also launched an accompanying blog (first freedom.mncc.org) that seeks to help Catholics and others understand how emerging challenges to religious liberty have roots in deeper conflicts over constitutional law and political philosophy.
In other words, ideas do have consequences.
Urgent Catholic obligation
Urging Catholic participation in the two-week Fortnight for Freedom (fortnight4freedom.org), Archbishop John Nienstedt has said that he would like this time to be an opportunity for Catholics to “truly understand what is at stake.”
Our bishops continue to remind us that the clergy’s role is to bring the light of the Gospel to public life, while the work of establishing a just civil order is properly that of “committed and courageous” lay Catholics.
There is an urgent need for the lay faithful, in solidarity with people of other faiths, to remind our elected representatives of the importance of continued protection of religious liberty in a free society.
Working against the voice of the Catholic faithful and people of goodwill, however, are those who wish to reduce the realm of religion to a mere private opinion or preference with no public role to play in shaping our politics or culture.
They often invoke the phrase “separation of church and state” to argue religion should have no role in public life.
This fundamental misunderstanding of the role of religion in the public square will end up hurting the most vulnerable in our society: those cared for, educated and assisted by people of faith, whose ministries will be marginalized or shuttered altogether.
Holy Father calls for vigilance
Pope Benedict XVI spoke earlier this year about his worry that religious liberty in the U.S. is being weakened.
“Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices,” he told the U.S. bishops on Jan. 19. “Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce the religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”
Pope Benedict called upon the Catholic laity to be an engaged, articulate and well-formed presence with the courage to counter “a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.”
Those seeking to discredit our calls for protection of religious liberty accuse us of wanting to establish a theocracy. Not so.
We do not seek a “sacred public square” with special privileges or benefits to religious citizens.
We cannot settle, however, for a “naked public square” stripped of well-reasoned religious arguments and religious believers.
Instead, we seek a civil public square where all citizens can make their contribution to the common good.
Let us use the upcoming Fortnight for Freedom to equip ourselves to promote and defend “our first, most cherished liberty.”
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.