“Religious Liberty Means More than You May Think,” Says Archbishop Chaput

by Steve Ray on March 20, 2015

Philadelphia, Pa., Mar 18, 2015 / 04:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia warned Tuesday that the United States will face increasing pressure to abandon its traditionally broad protections for religious liberty, though he encouraged Christians never to give up hope in God’s love.

Religious liberty, he said, “means much more than the freedom to believe whatever you like at home, and pray however you like in your church.”

“It means the right to preach, teach and worship in public and in private,” he said March 17. “It means a parent’s right to protect his or her children from harmful teaching. It means the right to engage the public square with moral debate and works of social ministry. It means the freedom to do all of this without negative interference from the government, direct or indirect, except within the limits of ‘just public order’.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput says Mass in Philadelphia's St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Sept. 7, 2014. Credit: Javier de la Flor/CNA.

The archbishop’s remarks came in his speech to Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where he discussed Dignitatis humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom.

Archbishop Chaput evaluated the religious freedom situation in the U.S. as “good” compared to “almost anywhere else in the world.”

“Religious believers played a very big role in founding and building the country. Until recently, our laws have reflected that.  In many ways they still do.”

He noted that a “large majority” of Americans believe in God and identify as Christian, while religious practice is high.

“But that’s changing.  And the pace will quicken. More young people are disaffiliated from religion now than at any time in our country’s past. More stay away as they age. And many have no sense of the role that religious freedom has played in our nation’s life and culture.”

The archbishop said the current administration may be “the least friendly to religious freedom concerns in history.” This trend will continue in areas like gay rights, contraception and abortion services, and public religious witness, as well as in the application of “so-called ‘anti-discrimination’ laws,” he said.

The tendency will also be evident in anti-bullying policies “that turn public schools into indoctrination centers on matters of human sexuality” that undermine any concept of truth in the concepts of male and female; and it will be manifested in restrictions on public funding, revoked tax exemptions, and expanded government regulations.

However, for Archbishop Chaput the biggest “crippling” problem in U.S. culture is the lack of a commonly shared meaning to words such as justice, rights, freedom, and dignity.

“We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power.”

He said that liberal democracy lacks the ability to be self-sustaining. “Democracy depends for its meaning on the existence of some higher authority outside itself,” he said.  

Human dignity has only one source and guarantee: humanity’s creation in the image and likeness of God.

“Modern pluralist democracy has plenty of room for every religious faith and no religious faith.  But we’re lying to ourselves if we think we can keep our freedoms without revering the biblical vision – the uniquely Jewish and Christian vision – of who and what man is.”

Archbishop Chaput summarized Christianity’s approach to society. Its rise had posed a threat to pagan societies, since the Christian understanding of sacred and secular authority rejected worship of the Roman Empire’s gods.

At one point the “confessional state” became “the standard Catholic model of government.” Such a state was committed to “advancing the true Catholic religion and suppressing religious error.”

The Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious liberty aimed to correct this approach by “going back to the sources of Christian thought.”

“The choice to believe any religious faith must be voluntary. Faith must be an act of free will, or it can’t be valid,” he noted.

“Forced belief violates the person, the truth and the wider community of faith, because it’s a lie,” the archbishop continued. Persons have rights “even when they choose falsehood over truth.”

The archbishop warned that religious freedom cannot survive unless people “actually believe and live their faith,” including in their public lives.

“No one can finally take our freedom unless we give it away,” he maintained.

“In practice, no law and no constitution can protect religious freedom unless people actually believe and live their faith – not just at home or in church, but in their public lives. But it’s also true that no one can finally take our freedom unless we give it away.”

Archbishop Chaput stressed the importance of finding hope in the people who comfort the suffering, serve the poor and “seek and teach the truth.”

“In the end, there’s too much evidence that God loves us, with a passion that is totally unreasonable and completely redemptive, to ever stop trusting in God’s purpose for the world, and for our lives.”

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