Freedom of Conscience and Religion
Celebrating July 4th—Independence Day—let’s pray for religious freedom and freedom of conscience for all Americans.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of this great nation, revealed how important freedom of conscience was: “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority” (Letter to New London Methodist, 1809). He clearly saw how former British rulers trampled these rights, which is why he wanted our Constitution to guarantee that the U.S. Government would never perpetrate such abuses.
George Washington also saw the need for a Constitutional guarantee protecting the freedom of conscience, stating that “if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure… [no one] would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution” (Letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia, 1789). Our first President led us in a lengthy, bloody war against British tyranny in the colonies; he was ready to fight again the very government he helped established for the sake of freedom of conscience and of religion.
For him, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are essential to the U.S. Constitution: “If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that [the Constitution] framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it” (Letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia, 1789). Colonists had fled the religious factions and battles found in Europe so as to practice their faith and live freely according to their conscience.
James Madison points out that, in the United States, every citizen has an equal right “to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience,” because “we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth that religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate” (Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment, 1785). So, without freedom of conscience there is no freedom of religion, and vice-versa. If the government were to force anyone to act against his moral conscience, then there is no freedom to fulfill one’s duty toward our Creator.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also insists on the inalienable right to freedom of religion and conscience:
The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in religious and moral matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of man. But the exercise of freedom does not entail the putative right to say or do anything (CCC 1747).
The Catholic Church insists that government respects the freedom of conscience, condemning the use of violence and force as contrary to the dignity of every human person:
“Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public.” This right is based on the very nature of the human person, whose dignity enables him freely to assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order (CCC 2106).
The right to religious liberty is… a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right (CCC 2108).
These are trying times for all peoples of faith in this country, but let us thank God for our bishops, as well as those Jewish and Christian leaders, who have been so insistent on defending the Constitution of this great nation against the tyranny.
Fr. John Waiss