Archbishop Chaput: how to meet the challenges to religious freedom

Archbishop Chaput: how to meet the challenges to religious freedom

Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM

This is the edited text of an address by Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap of Philadelphia on 20 June 2012 in Indianapolis to a group of Catholic journalists on the eve of the "Fortnight for Freedom," a national campaign of teaching, witness, and prayer against the US Government's abortifacient and contraceptive mandate and in favour or religious freedom.

Religious freedom is a cornerstone of the American experience. This is so obvious that once upon a time, nobody needed to say it. But times have changed. So it's worth recalling that Madison, Adams, Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, Jefferson - in fact, nearly all the American founders - saw religious faith as vital to the life of a free people. Liberty and happiness grow organically out of virtue. And virtue needs grounding in religious faith.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian, put it this way: The founders knew that in a republic, "virtue is intimately related to religion. However sceptical or deistic they may have been in their own beliefs, however determined they were to avoid anything like an established Church, they had no doubt that religion is an essential part of the social order because it is a vital part of the moral order."

Freedom of religion is more than freedom of worship. The right to worship is a necessary but not sufficient part of religious liberty. Christian faith requires community. It begins in worship, but it also demands preaching, teaching, and service. It's always personal but never private. And it involves more than prayer at home and Mass on Sunday - though these things are vitally important. Real faith always bears fruit in public witness and public action. Otherwise it's just empty words.

The founders saw the value of publicly engaged religious faith because they experienced its influence themselves. They created a nation designed in advance to depend on the moral convictions of religious believers, and to welcome their active role in public life.

Government coercion

Threats against religious freedom in our country are not imaginary. They're happening right now. They're immediate, serious, and real, given the pattern of government coercion that includes the current administration's HHS mandate interfering with the conscience rights of medical providers and private employers, as well as individual citizens and attacks on the policies, hiring practices, and tax statuses of religious charities and ministries.

Why is this hostility happening? A lot of it links to Catholic teaching on the dignity of life and human sexuality. Catholic moral convictions about abortion, contraception, the purpose of sexuality, and the nature of marriage are rooted not just in revelation, but also in reason and natural law. Human beings have a nature that's not just the product of accident or culture, but inherent, universal, and rooted in permanent truths knowable to reason.

The problem, as Notre Dame law professor Gerry Bradley points out, is that critics of the Church reduce all these moral convictions to an expression of subjective religious beliefs. And if they're purely religious beliefs, then - so the critics argue - they can't be rationally defended. And because they're rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. In effect, 2,000 years of moral tradition and religious belief become a species of bias. Opposing same-sex "marriage" thus amounts to religiously blessed homophobia.

There's more, though. When religious belief gets redefined downward to a kind of private bias, then the religious identity of institutional ministries has no public value - other than the utility of getting credulous people to do good things. So exempting Catholic adoption agencies, for example, from placing kids with gay couples becomes a concession to private prejudice. And concessions to private prejudice feed bigotry and hurt the public. Or so the reasoning goes. This is how moral teaching and religious belief end up getting hounded as hate speech.

Unless we work hard to keep our religious liberty, we'll lose it. It's already happening in other developed countries like Britain and Canada. The US Constitution is a great document - historically unique for its fusion of high ideals with the realism of very practical checks and balances. But in the end, it's just an elegant piece of paper.

In practice, nothing guarantees our freedoms except our willingness to fight for them. That means fighting politically and through the courts, without tiring and without apologies. We need to realise that America's founding documents assume an implicitly religious anthropology - an idea of human nature, nature's God, and natural rights - that many of our leaders no longer really share. We ignore that unhappy fact at our own expense.

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