01-11-2011 - Traces, n. 10

inside america


With the government encroaching upon religious rights in America, we turn our attention to our first Founder and the mystery of our being, in the face of the State’s “shoddy anthropology.”

by lorenzo albacete

The issue of religious liberty is fast becoming a central concern among the nation’s bishops. Consider, for example, the speech recently given by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles (“Defending Our First Freedom,” October 25, 2011), who states it bluntly: “We are slowly losing our sense of religious liberty in America. There is much evidence to suggest that our society no longer values the public role of religion or recognizes the importance of religious freedom as a basic right... These are among the reasons the U.S. Catholic bishops recently established a new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. My brother bishops and I are deeply concerned that believers’ liberties–and the Church’s freedom to carry out her mission–are threatened today, as they never have been before in our country’s history.”
Whatever one may think about the bishops’ particular conclusions about the nature of this perceived conflict, we cannot afford to ignore the urgency of their concern.
Archbishop Gomez goes over some concrete examples of what worries the bishops and he comments: “All of this is troubling and represents a sharp break with our history and American traditions. Religious liberty has always been “the first freedom” in our Bill of Rights and in our national identity. Our country’s founders recognized that religious freedom is a right endowed by God, not a privilege granted by government. And they respected that what God has given, no one–not a court, a legislature, or any institution–can rightly deny. In our history, religious freedom has always included the rights of churches and religious institutions to establish hospitals, schools, charities, media outlets, and other agencies–and to staff these ministries and run them, free from government intrusion. And religious freedom has always included the churches’ rights to engage in the public square to help shape our nation’s moral and social fabric.” Indeed, the founders of the United States gave religious freedom a specific mention in the First Amendment. Still, what did they mean exactly by religious freedom? Some Catholic scholars argue that the founders’ view of religious freedom was not totally compatible with the Catholic view, and that this is in fact at the root of today’s controversies. As one of them told me: “I do not think the historical record warrants the conclusion that the founders saw in the way Pope Benedict XVI does. Certainly, they did not share the Pope’s anthropological assumptions.”
The Church sees it as an essential part of her mission to defend the transcendent dimension of the human person against all efforts at reductionism, to insist that at the core of the human person is the invitation to participate in the divine life of the Trinity. To those who seek to reduce man to his status as a consumer or a producer, to his status as a subject of the state or a member of the party, a proletarian or a kulak, the Church has said: “No, man is a child of God, the only creature made in the image and likeness of God.” This, I believe, is the proper context to understand and explain the Catholic view to those concerned about the future of religious liberty in our country.
We should not hesitate to welcome the achievements of modernity, especially the central place that human rights has come to play in our legal cultures and in our foreign policies. Still, often these achievements come embedded in ideologies that eventually prove destructive of the very values that we seek to affirm or defend. Therefore, our mission is not simply affirming these values, but also of rescuing them by bringing them home to the revelation of what it means to be human found in the mystery of Christ.
How do we rescue modernity from its shoddy anthropology? That, in the final analysis, is what this debate on religious liberty is all about.