Over the past many years, religious liberty has been a major focus of the Catholic Church in the United States and around the world.
The concept of religious liberty is found both in Catholic belief and in the laws, history, and founding principles of our country. It received significant development in Catholic belief through the Second Vatican Council. It is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prevents the establishment of a national religion and ensures the free exercise of religion.
Religious liberty has become a focus because it has been under sustained heavy assault. The bizarre obsession of some officials for the past seven years with forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of celibate women religious who care for the elderly, to participate in providing contraception for employees, in violation of Catholic moral teaching, is the perfect symbol of this assault, so utterly unnecessary and petty and vicious. The sisters won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court (again) last month, one of two recent religious liberty victories, but it seems likely their ordeal is not yet over.
The relationship of religious and civil authority has generated controversies for millennia, and these “leave me alone” kinds of victories that protect conscience rights and carve out exemptions are undoubtedly important, but they’re not enough. Catholics of previous ages used to pray after every low Mass for the freedom of the church. It’s time we recovered a positive understanding of religious liberty, realizing that the church has a right to freedom because it has responsibilities — we have a job to do, given to us by God.
We have been sent to make disciples, to teach what God has commanded, to offer the grace of God in the sacraments, to share our common life as God’s people, and to live out our vocation to holiness as disciples of Jesus in every aspect of our lives, including in our work and public witness.
The freedom of the church exists because of that mission. And it’s worth defending.