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Why is religious freedom a fundamental human right?

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Three out of every four people live in countries that restrict religious freedom.

The freedom of religion is at the very core of our dignity as human persons. This is because we are made for truth and especially the truth about God. As the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, proclaims: “All are bound to seek the truth…and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it” (no. 1). The increase of hostility to religious liberty must be traced to an increasing lack of understanding of—or respect for—our truth-seeking nature. Some choose to obstruct the natural right to religious liberty, either in the name of religion or an increasingly militant secularism. The Christian understanding of a loving God obliges us to pay deep respect to every person's inalienable right to religious liberty.

This truth about religious freedom is one that is accessible to all human beings, no matter their religious affiliation or lack of it. It is not a truth peculiar to the Catholic Church or any other church or religion. It is a natural truth, as the Founding Fathers of the United States recognized when they enshrined religious liberty in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Religious intolerance proceeds from blindness to our shared fellowship in the quest for truth and the Ultimate Truth. We have lost what Blessed Pope John Paul II called the sense of “solidarity.” Such intolerance, whether derived from a false view of religion or cynicism, compromises the dignity of the human person.

While not absolutely necessary for an understanding of religious liberty, our Catholic faith deepens and secures our appreciation of religious liberty, illuminating more clearly than can our natural lights the divine source of our freedom and the supernatural destiny for which it is given us. The best means of encouraging religious liberty in civil life, therefore, is to witness to the truth of the Catholic faith.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in his recent eBook, True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty, argues that the opposition to genuine freedom in the United States–and, one may extrapolate, the West in general–comes down to a “trinity of culprits”: pragmatism, utilitarianism and consumerism. These three ideologies are not so much “first cousins,” as the Cardinal describes them, as the three heads of a single Hydra: an understanding of human beings that places desire above destiny. More exactly, this understanding credits human purposes at the expense of natural ends. A purpose, according to the philosopher Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, is simply a desire of an agent; an end, by contrast, is a telos or perfection “built in” to human nature.

The most important of these ends—of our natural endowments—is our ability to seek out the truth and the truth about God. This ability has a corresponding right that it not be obstructed. In the pursuit and enjoyment of truth, our conscience must be free from the non-authoritative coercive power of the state or any individual or group. This is of supreme importance when it comes to the exercise of religion (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2104-09).

Pragmatism, utilitarianism and consumerism, however, all either reject or ignore natural ends and the rights accruing to them. These ideologies focus, rather, on the best means of achieving whatever purpose an individual or community may happen to have, whether it comports with human ends or not. Everything is subject to the calculation of interests. Nothing is inviolable–not the baby in the womb, and not the right to religious exercise.

Insofar as a culture rejects or ignores human ends in favor of purposes, that culture can be called a culture of death. For in such a culture the focus is on getting one’s hands on whatever it is one happens to want, and the power to resist the temptation to do whatever it takes to get it becomes atrophied.

By contrast, a culture of life prizes above all the gift of human being itself, and not only the perfected ends of human nature, but also the potential or capability that may or may not (as in the case of the handicapped and unborn) ever be realized. In a culture of life, being is prized over having. Thus the right of those to pursue the truth and the truth about God without obstruction–whether or not others ever come to believe in God in the same way as we do–must always be a matter for the deepest respect and deserving of our utmost protection. This is because the freedom to know and worship God is at the very heart of what it means to be human.

As a telling, though not singular, example of a grave threat to religious liberty occurring as a legal or social threat, consider the Obama administration’s recent mandate for religious institutions to provide health insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception (the so-called “HHS Mandate”). Such a mandate directly obstructs the commitment of religious institutions–including but not only Catholic ones–not to provide access to birth control practices they consider gravely immoral. In February 2012, an open letter protesting this mandate and the administration’s ensuing “accommodation” was signed, among 118 others, by former Vatican Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, Princeton professor Robert George, Notre Dame law professor Carter Snead, and president of The Catholic University of America, John Garvey. In the letter the signatories argued:

"The simple fact is that the Obama administration is compelling religious people and institutions who are employers to purchase a health insurance contract that provides abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization. This is a grave violation of religious freedom and cannot stand. It is an insult to the intelligence of Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith and conscience to imagine that they will accept as assault on their religious liberty if only it is covered up by a cheap accounting trick."

Note well how the signatories defend their claim as a matter that any person of good conscience can appreciate. The right not to be forced by the state to engage in activities expressly contrary to one’s most cherished and fundamental beliefs is a right that can and must be respected by all.

See this list of other threats to religious liberty in the U.S.. See also this wonderful 2010 talk by Archbishop Joseph Chaput.

In his eBook, Cardinal Dolan stresses the need to recapture the essential relationship between the civil law and the moral law. Under the influence of the secular ideologies noted above, civil governments, at least in the West, are more and more dismissing moral considerations rooted in the nature of human beings when they craft their laws. Law can never be reduced to a calculation of interests. Law, rather, is a means by which human beings can achieve their natural perfection.

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