Religious Freedom and Obedience to the State

The state has a duty to protect the private and public exercise of religion and each person’s right to religious freedom—no one should ever be forced to act against his conscience:

In what way does a person exercise his or her proper right to worship God in truth and in freedom? Every person has the right and the moral duty to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church. Once the truth is known, each person has the right and moral duty to embrace it, to guard it faithfully and to render God authentic worship. At the same time, the dignity of the human person requires that in religious matters no one may be forced to act against conscience nor be restrained, within the just limits of public order, from acting in conformity with conscience, privately or publicly, alone or in association with others (CCCC 444; see CCC 2105-8).

Religious freedom includes the Church’s and individual’s freedom of speech: to be able to speak out in protection of the human dignity of individuals, marriage, sexuality, and a child’s right to have a loving mother and father, and to speak out against abuses (such as pornography, not just child porn); the right to establish a family, have children, and bring them up in keeping with the family’s own moral and religious convictions. So, civic society has the duty to protect the stability of the marriage bond and the institution of the family.

The Church is often attacked for speaking out on these issues, with a concerted effort to thwart her ability to continue doing so, labeling as “hate speech” her defending the unborn, or that sexuality should be reserved for one man and one woman united in a life-long, unbreakable bond of marital love, or that children should have a right to both a mother and a father. Individuals and institutions are being corralled into submission by the fear of reprisals: loss of tax exemption or penalties for refusing to perform ceremonies for same-sex partners, or to pay for abortion, contraception, sterilizations, in vitro fertilization, and other procedures they deem immoral in conscience.

Some states have forced the Catholic Church out of helping married couples adopt children who need a mother and father and out of other areas of charity, such as healthcare and care for the aged. This occurs because the Church refuses to be party to euthanasia, abortion, and everything contrary to what God has revealed to us.

I think of the Old Testament book of Tobit. When the elder Tobit was exiled with Israel to Nineveh, the Assyrians refused to let them practice their Jewish religion. Unable to travel to Jerusalem to worship and tithe, Tobit did many acts of charity, such as giving food and clothing to the poor. But the government officials threatened to punish anyone who buried those left dead in the streets, as they wanted make the dead a show as to what would happen to anyone who went contrary to the government. This didn’t stop Tobit, who would secretly hide the bodies of the dead left to rot so as to bury them at night. Yet Tobit would end up suffering a consequence of his good deeds, being made blind while carrying out his charity.

Catholic healthcare provides hospitals and clinics to care for innumerable patients, and Catholic Charities provide a great deal of services that benefit the poor, from meals to homeless, to aid to unwed mothers, and daycare for the elderly. Threats of losing tax-exempt status or of having to pay extravagant penalties may force us to become another Tobit, serving others in a clandestine way. This is what the Church had to do in Poland during the Communist tyranny. This may force us to get back to our roots, yet we hope there would be another way. Let’s continue to stand up and defend the freedoms we cherish, but also be ready, as were Saints Peter and Paul, to lay down our lives for our faith in Jesus Christ, defending our most treasured freedom.

Father John Waiss is the pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is also a member of Opus Dei, the prelature founded by St. Josemaria Escriva.