- What do we mean by religious liberty?
- Is religious liberty the same as freedom of worship?
- How can we take Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher as examples in our modern advocacy for religious liberty when the come from a time very different than our own?
- How has their example impacted the life and history of the Catholic Church?
- Are you trying to tell people that they will be martyred by the US government?
- What do you hope people learn from the relics tour?
- What can “people in the pews” do to advocate for religious liberty?
What do we mean by religious liberty?
Religious liberty is the freedom necessary for people of faith to fully live out their beliefs in society. It is both the freedom from being coerced into beliefs or actions that violate one’s convictions, and it’s also the freedom to respond to the call of the Creator in word and deed—both as individuals and corporately as a church. Religious liberty is a right because each of us has the duty to seek God and serve Him in both public and private. It requires a society where the conditions for genuine religious expression are not merely protected, but are actively promoted.
Religious liberty is not only for Americans, but it is an important part of our heritage. The right to live and worship according to one’s own religious convictions is not something that was won easily, and is not something that we should allow to slip away. After all, religious liberty isn’t a Catholic issue, or a Jewish or Muslim issue. It’s an American issue.
Is religious liberty the same as freedom of worship?
Religious liberty includes, but goes far beyond, the freedom of worship. As Catholics, religious liberty allows the same faith that we celebrate in the Mass to be lived out as public citizens of the United States. In fact, there is no alternative for American Catholics; just as Daniel and his companions worked for the well-being of Babylon, our faith leads most of us into prudent engagement with the wider society, namely, to go into the public square and contribute to the common good of all Americans. This is the task of faithful citizenship.
But just as faithful citizenship calls us to contribute to the common good, it calls us to do so in a way consistent with our deepest convictions. In our participation in society, we have the right to be free from coercive arrangements and practices where the dictates of our conscience are violated. Put another way, we need the freedom to serve and live the very faith that compels Catholic individuals and organizations to make enormous contributions in education, health care, and social services, both here at home and overseas.
How can we take More and Fisher as examples in our modern advocacy for religious freedom when they come from a time very different than our own?
Though not perfect, More and Fisher were called to be witnesses to freedom in their time and in the context of the concrete circumstances in which God placed them. When the law of the king came into conflict with the law of Christ, they chose Christ. These men gave their lives for the freedom of the Church. They bear witness to the truth that no king can make a claim on a person’s soul, nor can any government make its laws superior to those of God.
The witness of these saints is important for American Catholics today. Our faith compels us to go forth into our communities to serve and be witnesses to the love of Christ. But our government is increasingly trying to force Catholics and others to violate their faith as a requirement for full participation in society. Robust protection for religious liberty and rights of conscience are crucial, because they help create the space for us to live out our vocations.
Though their circumstances were different from our own, like More and Fisher we need to reflect on the point at which we will refuse to bend the knee to the powers and principalities of our day. Our public service can never come at the expense of our fidelity to the Lord. As More put it as he was led to the gallows, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
How has their example impacted the life and history of the Catholic Church?
The life of St. Thomas More, who is the patron of statesmen, has become a powerful symbol for Catholics serving the public. More was able to selflessly devote himself to the well-being of England precisely because he recognized it wasn’t his final home, and that the wealth and power it possessed would never truly satisfy him. He was canonized in 1935, serving as a compelling counter to the authoritarian regimes of the time that attempted to put all aspects of human life underneath their rule.
Are you trying to tell people that they will be martyred by the US government?
No. Unlike Catholics in some countries who are suffering direct and immediate persecution, and who cannot even worship freely, American Catholics are not in any immediate danger of being thrown to the lions or the burning fiery furnace by the state.
But the threat of a different kind of martyrdom—expulsion from a profession, loss of a job, having to close one’s business or ministry, penalization by the government, enduring social scorn and ridicule for standing up for what is right—is very real and becoming more and more prevalent.
A new dictatorship, one that masks itself as the defender of freedom and autonomy, and misleadingly flies under the banner of “human rights,” seeks to stamp out anything and anyone it deems bigoted or discriminatory. Today’s movement for liberty, the dictatorship of relativism, looks a lot like fascism.
Small business owners have lost their livelihoods for refusing to participate in same-sex weddings. Catholics working in immigration services cannot live their calling to welcome the stranger due to repressive state laws that bar sheltering and serving undocumented persons. And Catholic adoption agencies have been essentially run out of some states because they will only place children in homes with a mother and a father. The most troubling aspect of these abuses of religious liberty is that they are being perpetrated by the very government established to protect this first and fundamental freedom.
It’s also important to remember that attacks against religious liberty go beyond the people facing coercion. Attacks on religious liberty curtail organizations’ and individuals’ ability to offer life-giving social services, medical care, and education, ultimately impairing the broader common good. It’s the people on the margins of society who are hurt most by attacks on religious liberty.
Furthermore, a government that makes a habit of violating individuals’ religious liberty will be more likely to trample on other fundamental human rights in order to get its way. We’re establishing a dangerous precedent right now.
What do you hope people learn from the relics tour?
It’s always important for Catholics to think and live within a historical frame of reference. When tempted to despair, we must remember that the Church has seen and withstood a lot, and many worse challenges than what we face today in the United States. We can look to the witness of the communion of saints and draw strength from their example, and hopefully graces from their intercession.
Each of us is called to be a missionary disciple, and each of us will face challenges as we seek to fulfill that responsibility. Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher are examples of men who sacrificed everything to follow Jesus. The stood strong, even when others implored them to simply mouth some words of fidelity to the king, which would have been easy to do. But they stood on principle and have inspired generations to have the courage of their convictions. We may not face their kind of martyrdom, but we need their witness to face the metaphorical gallows of our own day.
What is one thing “people in the pews” can do right now?
We need to be vigilant in protecting religious liberty, our first, most cherished liberty. As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan recently said at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, we have to advocate for our faith because “living out of faith gives us joy.” As the Speaker puts it, “When faith is ruled out of bounds, then happiness itself is put out of reach.”
Catholics can stand up against this assault on religious liberty at both a personal and a political level. At the personal level, the bishops have urged an intensification of prayers and fasting for a new birth of freedom in our beloved country.
Additionally, as citizens of this great country, each of us has a political voice that we can use to remind our elected officials that religious liberty is the foundation on which our nation was built. Attacks on religious liberty must be viewed as attacks on our communities, families, churches, and the common good. We must take action to make sure our elected officials know where we stand. Joining the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s Catholic Advocacy Network and signing up for Action Alerts and E-Updates on religious liberty and other important issues is a great place to start.