April 26, 2012
On April 12, 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on religious liberty entitled
Our First, Most Cherished Liberty. Despite the fact that the media, for the most part, has remained silent about the document, it is worth reading. The statement can lead us to a greater appreciation of the gift of freedom in our country as well as to an awareness of the dangers that imperil that freedom.
The very beginning of the document states:
To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other. Our allegiances are distinct, but they need not be contradictory, and should instead be complementary. That is the teaching of our Catholic faith, which obliges us to work together with fellow citizens for the common good of all who live in this land. That is the vision of our founding and our Constitution, which guarantees citizens of all religious faiths the right to contribute to our common life together.
Whenever there is a discussion about religion and the common good, inevitably the question arises, which religion? Different religions teach different doctrines. Not every religion understands morality in exactly the same way. How, then, is an open-minded and honest individual to make a decision for the common good when listening to the views put forth by different religious groups?
There are certain truths that each religion teaches from the divine revelation that they claim to possess. These truths vary from one religion to another. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all teach that there is only one God. But Christians hold that the one God is a Trinity of Divine Persons. Even within Christianity, various churches hold different beliefs on Sacred Scripture, Redemption, the Sacraments and the mystery of the Church. But there are other truths that are common to different religions.
Historically, Christian thinkers interacted with the thought of Greek and Roman philosophers on nature, the universe and the human person. Guided by divine revelation and faith, Christian theologians taught the dignity of the human person, the reality of sin, not only personal sin, but Original Sin as well, and the freedom of the individual to choose his or her own religion. These basic ideas were firmly established in Christian thought long before the first arrivals came from Europe to the shores of this land.
When our country was born, our Founding Fathers made these ideas the basis of our most cherished rights as Americans: freedom, equality and the value of every individual. To affirm the Judeo-Christian roots of these values is not to deny the significance of other religious traditions. It is simply recognizing an historical fact that has benefited the common good of all peoples, even beyond our national boundaries.
Our Founding Fathers believed that these rights could be understood apart from divine revelation and faith. As The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thus, the Founding Fathers of this country recognized the natural law as the foundation for rights. They listed the rights that are derived from “the laws of nature and nature’s God”.
The fact that we would hold in abhorrence someone who advocates the torture of children points to the truth about the human person as found in the natural law. The fact that no one can visit Auschwitz and simply say that others had different values than ours points to the universal norm of the natural law. A government may recognize these rights guaranteed by the natural law or choose to ignore them. But no government can confer these rights or take them away. They already belong to the person as created by God.
There is a long standing tradition in Catholic teaching on the natural law that supports the position of the Founding Fathers. The concept of natural law arguably originated with the Stoics and Aristotle. However, medieval Catholic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas developed the concept into an important foundation for ethical teaching. Since the truths of the natural law can be arrived at by the use of human reason, when the Church teaches these truths clearly, she can serve the common good of all by providing a rational guide for morality. American and Catholic: perfect together!