01-09-2013 - Traces, n. 8

new world

Free to be ourselves
The growing confusion over what it means for a liberal democracy to uphold the liberty of all gives Catholics the opportunity for public witness to a way of life. A conference at the John Paul II Center for Marriage and the Family revisits the meaning of certain misappropriated words, such as “freedom,” “neutrality,” and “the common good” in its exploration of jeopardized Constitutional rights.

by Timothy Herrmann

“We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both, grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens. To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other.” Thus begins the USCCB’s statement on religious liberty, revisited for this summer’s annual “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign of prayer and education focused on challenges to religious liberty in America and abroad. The John Paul II Center for Marriage and the Family recently made a valuable contribution to getting to the bottom of what has evolved in the life of this country’s liberal democratic tradition, exploring the confusion caused by the liberal tradition of religious freedom and State neutrality at the heart of the current crisis of religious freedom.

A guaranteed right? For the past two years, American Catholics have fought unsuccessfully to prevent the Obama administration from imposing the HHS mandate on employers and employees faithful to Church teaching. Our continued failure begs an important question: Is it time Catholics look once again at the possibility that our understanding of religious freedom may conflict significantly with that of our American political tradition? Is religious freedom truly possible for the Catholic in America today?
For three days, a close-knit group of friends and academics attended a unique conference sponsored by the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family in Washington, DC, where they took a passionate second look at religious freedom in America in light of the conciliar document Dignitatis Humanae. This country was founded by men and women who fled religious persecution; here,  freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution as a fundamental right.  And yet, in the face of the persecution currently confronting American Catholics, such questioning as was in act at the John Paul II Center is increasingly hard to avoid.

Falling on deaf ears. This is not the first time questions regarding the American conception of religious freedom have been raised. During the drafting of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council document addressing religious freedom, American Jesuit and theologian John Courtney Murray famously made the case that, as a non-confessional liberal democracy, America is naturally a bastion of individual freedom and religious pluralism. In America, he argued, not only is the Catholic able to practice his religion free of coercion, but his religious practice is a right guaranteed by law.
Thus, as American Catholics, we find ourselves in a state of confusion.  If Murray is right and if our history is to be trusted, why is it that every argument we make on the basis of religious freedom is suddenly falling on deaf ears? Is this simply a case of blatant tyranny on the part of the current administration? Or is the root cause of the crisis to be found somewhere deeper within our culture?
The conference, entitled, “Dignitatis Humanae and the Rediscovery of Religious Freedom,” took its bearing from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s recent call to reengage with the conciliar documents of the Second Vatican Council in light of the struggles being faced by the Church in contemporary culture.  At the core of Dignitatis Humanae, translated “Dignity of Man,” is the crucial observation that “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person” (DH 2). In other words, man’s ultimate search for meaning belongs to his very nature. Religious freedom is not a right man is given, or one right among many, but one that is essential to his humanity.
During the conference, this observation was developed even further by Fr. Antonio López (FSCB), Dean of the Institute, when he defined culture “as embodied religion.”  Fr. López explained that “the horizon of meaning that gives form to social life is rooted in that search for the ultimate, unifying meaning of existence whose full expression we call religion.” Referring to Fr. Luigi Giussani, Fr. López emphasized that religion, or man’s innate “religiosity,” is not simply “one activity among many, [but] a permanent dimension” through which “man fully expresses his own nature.” 
For the Christian, the constitutive experience of religiosity is even more radical because “the event of Christ incarnates the ultimate truth that man’s religiosity constantly seeks,” Fr. López continued, and demands a free relationship with Christ who is the answer to his ultimate meaning. The Christian belongs to Christ, and understands himself only in relation to Him. Without Christ, the Christian loses himself. To be free, for the Christian, is to be in relationship with Christ.
 Therefore, “only in the conscious and free relation with the ultimate mystery is man truly free [to be himself]. As such, religiosity alone can contradict any power.” That is why, currently, “it is not surprising that any established power will do its best to silence man’s religiosity and its public, communal expression.”
As pointed out by Cardinal Angelo Scola, who addressed the conference from Milan, Italy, through a prerecorded video, this is the very dimension of man which the modern democratic liberal State is now determined to suppress, even in America.
Citing a recent study, Cardinal Scola asserted that “religious freedom is the best litmus test for pluralism in a society.” Where there is religious freedom, we know that there is true pluralism. More to the point, “the non-confessionality of the liberal democratic State,” he continued, “should not be confused with neutrality or secularism,” because doing so, he explained, can lead a State to impose secularism onto society, and prevent individuals in society “from making their contribution to the common good.”
According to many of those presenting at the conference, it is partly the confusion between non-confessionality and neutrality that has caused the current crisis in America. The State’s supposed neutrality in relation to the content of the common good has forced the common good to become not merely something private, but something nearly impossible to define objectively in the public sphere. The result is a common good of “neutrality” that in practice is not neutral at all but that undermines any claim to truth not sanctioned by those in power.
An empty space. American democracy is founded within the political tradition of liberalism and, like other liberal democracies, bases itself on the freedom of individual choice. In a liberal democracy, the State does not identify the political good with any particular content. Instead, it protects the right of the individual to pursue the good that he chooses to pursue. As long as an individual’s right does not conflict with the rights of others, the State is not obligated to intervene.
Therefore, as observed by Professor David C. Schindler of Villanova University, the common good “understood in liberal terms explicitly refuses to make reference to an actual, comprehensive human good, and this refusal is precisely what defines it as a liberal conception of politics.” In a liberal democracy like America, religious freedom “can in fact mean only ‘freedom’ [as] an empty space that can subsequently be filled with any content or none at all.”
It is here that Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, made his mistake, explained Professor Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame, an expert on the history of liberalism in America. Murray assumed that “liberalism–while itself indifferent to conceptions of the Good–would nevertheless provide a sphere of free exercise in which religious belief could flourish.” He sincerely believed that the Church could accept the “liberal political structures” and institutions because they would provide the space for its free expression and affirmation of the good, while the liberal ideology of indifference in front of the common good could be rejected.

Silencing the claim. Unfortunately, what Murray failed to see, according to Dr. Schindler, is that the State, by claiming incompetence in front of the content of the common good, while at the same time assuming the role of protecting the right of the individual to pursue that good, is in fact limiting that right. The State’s competence becomes its incompetence in front of any truth claim at all. Instead of identifying  the common good and upholding it as objective, it ultimately undermines it by refusing to recognize it and later defining it as those in power see fit.
In this confusion, invited in by the distortion of the definition of “neutrality” and individual freedom, the Catholic is often silenced because his faith makes a claim on what is good, and for the Catholic what is good is not simply public order but the way in which public order is ordered. For liberalism, the common good is a neutral State in which all are free to exercise their faith without interfering with the others’ practice. In theory, this makes sense, but in reality it means that the State assumes the role of limiting those religions and practices which are not neutral and present claims that do not align with those in power. No matter how radically autonomous  the individual is in liberal society, he can never openly affirm any objective good that is not ultimately neutral or that is not already determined by those in power.  
But the hope alive in these days of discourse was seen in the unity of participants, which in fact flies in the face of such assertions of autonomy. What was most striking about the conference was not simply the conclusions that were drawn but the atmosphere of friendship and true camaraderie in which they took place. These were companions in the truest sense, that is, friends and lovers of the truth of life. Throughout the conference, it was clear that the concerns were not firstly academic, but a commitment to the truth of things. For those in the room, a life, a particular way of living was at stake, not simply a theological argument.
It was this, more than anything, that led me, as an American Catholic, to consider that, perhaps, American liberalism doesn’t truly offer the very freedom I had come to take for granted.