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Venzor: The fundamental problem with religious liberty

In our modern culture, religious liberty faces a fundamental problem. Too often, it is narrowly conceived as “special pleading.” 

By this, I mean religious liberty is perceived as an avenue by which certain religious views seek special treatment and protections. This applies particularly to religious views which have lost their former cultural and legal influence.

Consider two examples. While abortion remains socially and politically contentious, the notion that “abortion is health care” (as Planned Parenthood frequently touts) has taken root in various ways. Abortion is frequently considered routine medicine and the standard of care for certain predicaments. The effect is that medical professionals and institutions are expected to cooperate in providing abortion services.

But not all medical professionals and institutions have bowed down to this ideology. Instead, they are determined to uphold the dignity of the unborn child and provide true help to mothers in crisis pregnancies. This has led to creating space within the medical community for professionals and institutions to assert moral or religious objections to abortion. This “exception” to the rule of unfettered access to abortion has been labeled discriminatory – and a special protection for irrational, theological beliefs about when life begins. These exceptions, it is argued, should not exist in a progressively civilized culture.

The other example pertains to marriage. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the true meaning of marriage – as an institution between one man and one woman for life and for the good of children – lost its priority in society and law. Breaking with millennia of cultural and legal values, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to effectively reinvent civil marriage by legally expanding it to include a relationship between two people of the same sex. 

People of faith and religious institutions have sought legal protections from this devastating decision and other aggressive political initiatives seeking to redefine norms of human sexuality. As with the abortion issue, these dissenters have been treated as unwelcomed persons, as those who seek a special protection for their irrational, theological beliefs about whom someone can love or how someone asserts his or her sexual identity. Again it is argued that these religious liberty claims should be impermissible in a modern society.

But religious freedom goes well beyond the alleged privileges of special pleading. Religious freedom reflects the goodness, truth and beauty of our humanity: that we are created in the image and likeness of God.

 During the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the council fathers issued a monumental document, a declaration on religious liberty entitled “Dignitatis Humanae” (“On Human Dignity”). This document explains the foundations and scope of religious liberty.

Using both faith and reason, the council fathers recognized that religious liberty is grounded in our creation as human beings, formed in the image and likeness of God. In giving us the gift of intellect (reason) and will (freedom), God has fashioned us as creatures who can learn and understand the truth, as well as adhere to it through our actions. We are wired (so to speak) to seek the truth and live it, especially as it pertains to moral and religious matters, if we desire ultimate happiness.

Civil society and governing structures (for example, constitutions, laws, etc.) must recognize and respect this inherent dimension of our humanity, and can only limit the exercise of religious freedom to the extent necessary for the common good and public order (for example, prohibiting religious views that would harm public safety).

In short, religious freedom exists not to provide “special protections” for those who have lost cultural or legal battles on foundational political issues. Religious freedom is so much more: It is the capacity of every human person to act on the truth as he or she understands it, without undue influence or coercion from the government.

Without this freedom, the necessary precondition for human flourishing or the development of the common good is impossible. As St. Pope John Paul II recognized: “Insofar as it touches the innermost sphere of the spirit, one can even say that (religious freedom) upholds the justification, deeply rooted in each individual, of all other liberties.”

As religious freedom remains in our cultural and political limelight, may we have the courage to prophetically witness to the fullness, grandeur and necessity of religious liberty! Ss. Thomas More and John Fischer, pray for us!

Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at tvenzor@necatholic.org.

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