Freedon of Conscience – July 1, 2012 – Rev. Emmett H. Carroll, S.J.
FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE
July 4, 2012
Rev. Emmett H. Carroll, S.J.
One group of English bemoaned insufficient freedom for their Puritanism. In 1620, they resolved to go to the new world, to America, with the conviction that there they would freely practice their faith. By founding their own government in the new world, civil authorities would be puritans, and these authorities would themselves cherish a puritan outlook. They would leave Holland, transit briefly in London, and then sail to America. Ready to depart from Holland, they had a day of solemn humiliation.
But the tide, which stays for no man, calling them away that were thus loath to depart, their reverend pastor falling down on his knees (and they all with him) with watery cheeks commended them with most fervent prayers to the Lord and His blessing. And they, with mutual embraces and many tears, they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them (Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, by William Bradford. Ed. Samuel Eliot Morison, 1966. Pp. 47-48).
The people we call Pilgrims came to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in November of 1620 in order to live religious lives. Although others came to other places at other times, these Pilgrims came in number and with a clear purpose and they left a body of writing. They effected a religious character on this country, and that sense of Godliness, no longer puritan, endures in this nation. It remains in our constitution, on our coin, in some of our national holidays, and elsewhere in this country’s habits.
On Wednesday of this week, everyone in the United States takes a holiday. Officially, we celebrate our independence, but in a larger sense we all celebrate the character and mode of being Americans. On the Fourth of July, citizens enjoy exuberance in their national charter and in their freedom. Looking forward to this holiday, we fittingly recall a decree of Vatican Council II entitled a Declaration on Religious Liberty; it melds with our United States guarantee of religious liberty.
For centuries, the Church maintained that the establishment of Catholicism as the official state religion was the only acceptable arrangement between Church and state. Such a thought, if true for a few countries, certainly would not today bear examination for the majority of nations. During Vatican II, Catholic teaching on religious liberty shifted.
A primary principle of Church teaching on marriage will prove helpful in understanding this principle of religious liberty. Only a person free from coercion can vow self in marriage. If duress impinges importantly, that person has not sufficient freedom; such a person does not really commit self in marriage. In similar manner, a person ought not be constrained to practice a religious life that the person has not freely chosen.
The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. All people should be immune from coercion by individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others.
The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom is based on human dignity as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order as will make it a civil right.
The council has grounded its teaching both on the dignity of the human person and on scripture. The act of faith, quintessentially, flows from an individual’s free choice. Jesus Christ never compelled anyone to believe in him. “Come to me,” says Jesus, “all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Jesus draws us by transforming bread into his Eucharistic body. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…. Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:56-58). “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’” (John 6:66-67). Jesus does not twist arms. Jesus invites adherents; He asks for our assent, our belief, our untrammeled attachment to Himself.
Jesus did not wish to be a political Messiah who would dominate by force, for He withdrew to the mountain alone when He knew that followers were coming to carry Him off to make Him king (John 6:15). Jesus recognizes civil authority and its rights in ordering tribute to be paid to Caesar: “Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
Born with the dignity of persons, we admit no shackles—physical or mental, contrived or real. Martin Luther King has dramatized our failure to honor the dignity of people of color. Vatican II teaches and urges us to respect human understanding and the human will. God has formed the mind and the heart whereby we choose; faith in Jesus Christ should be freely chosen.
Vatican II concludes its declaration with a prayer. “May God the Father of all, grant that the human family by carefully observing the principle of religious liberty in society may be brought by the grace of Christ and the power of the holy Spirit to that ‘glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21) which is sublime and everlasting.” Amen.