May 31, 2007
Close to 90% of Americans consider themselves to be religious. Yet we witness a strong campaign to secularize our society. The goal of secularization is to exclude the expression of religion in the public forum. In fact, activists argue that religion is an obstacle to freedom. Their arguments are particularly directed at the Catholic Church.
The Church teaches that all life from the moment of conception to natural death is sacred. Because the Church, therefore, teaches that abortion - the heinous killing of an innocent child - is wrong, activists argue that the Church is against women’s rights. The Church teaches that marriage is a natural union between a man and a woman open to life. Because the Church, therefore, teaches on the basis of natural law that there is no such reality as same-sex marriage and that contraception is morally evil, activists argue that the Church is denying homosexuals their rights and married couples their freedom. In a word, the arena of "reproductive rights" has become a battleground where secularism and cultural liberalism have joined hands against the freedom of religion in America.
From the birth of our nation until today, people have accepted the fact that religion has a positive effect in fostering morality. Religion forms people’s ideas about God and their neighbor. Religion guides the formation of conscience according to moral norms. This is why the Founding Fathers were convinced that religion has a role to play for the right functioning of the State and the administration of justice.
When the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1791, the founders of our country wanted to keep government from establishing a religion as the State religion. The First Amendment is more about the role of the State than the place of the Church.
The Founding Fathers did not pass the First Amendment to silence religion from raising its voice in the debate about issues that affect the common good. No! They passed the First Amendment to restrain the federal government itself from telling individuals what religion to choose or how to practice their religion. They were guaranteeing that individuals would have freedom to practice their religion. They were not banishing religion from having a voice in the life of the nation. Today, however, the First Amendment is being used to limit the role of the Church.
When our nation began, concern centered on the government’s interference with religion. Today, the concern is the exact opposite: to keep religion from any influence on the State. There has been an aggressive ideological push on the part of secular activists to relegate religion to the private sphere. Religion, for these individuals, is simply a matter of a personal life-style choice. Certainly this attitude underlines the schizophrenic speech of politicians who say that they personally believe abortion is wrong, but that they publicly support the woman’s right to do away with her child.
Both the secularist and the religious speak of “rights.” They talk about “good” and “evil.” The same words sound from their lips, but not the same meaning. For a secularist, human rights are derived from government. From a Catholic perspective, human rights are antecedent to government. Human rights come from God. For a secularist, morality is simply a matter of one’s personal choice. From a Catholic perspective, morality has its ultimate origin in the will of the Creator who has fashioned our human nature with a purpose and a destiny. What accords with that purpose and destiny of our rational nature is moral. What does not is immoral.
Catholics hold that there is objective truth. We do not create our own truth. Right and wrong are antecedent to the choices individuals make. We make morally good choices by placing our actions in conformity with what is objectively good. Human reason itself can show man what is good and evil, what is right and what is wrong.
Ever since the 1970s, "conscience clauses" were provided in law so that individuals and institutions could live according to their moral and religious beliefs. Thus, Catholic individuals and hospitals have not been required to participate in sterilization and abortion, since these procedures are clearly against Church teaching. But secular activists have been waging a strong attack on the very concept of "conscience clauses."
Secularists argue that providing health care to the poor on behalf of government is a secular service and not religious. Therefore, there should be no exemption for religious institutions from public policy. These ideological opponents of "conscience clauses" argue for "reproductive health" freedoms. They want to convince the public that the appeal to the "conscience clauses" is a subterfuge for discrimination against women. And so they deliberately change the language of "conscience clauses" to "refusal clauses." They want the public to think that the use of "conscience clauses" by religious institutions allows them to force their beliefs on those in their employ.
If Catholic institutions which provide healthcare to the needy on behalf of the government can no longer follow the tenets of the Catholic faith, those institutions will simply have to stop those services or, worse yet, go out of existence. In such a case, who wins? Certainly not the many poor and indigent who received free medical care from Catholic hospitals and institutions.
In a pluralistic, democratic society both individuals and institutions need to have the right to exercise their freedom of religion. As long as there is not an issue of public safety, religious freedom should prevail. But some are actively working to curtail the exercise of freedom of religion itself when religious principles conflict with secularism and cultural relativism. What future will society have when secularism has extinguished the freedom to practice religion? How bright is a future in which the light of faith is no longer permitted in the public forum?
This is the third and final article that explores new laws and their implication for the freedom of religion.