Reflections about religious liberty on our nation's Independence Day
Friday, Jul. 03, 2020
CNS photo/Brad Birkholz, for The Compass
Fireworks explode over St. Margaret Mary Church July 4, 2018 during Independence Day celebrations in Neenah, Wis.
On the Fourth of July, our nation will celebrate its birthday and the liberties purchased by the sacrifices made by our forebears who fought in the Revolutionary War. As we celebrate the 244th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, it is worth recalling that our country’s Founding Fathers declared, in that document: “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.”
It is also worth reflecting that almost immediately after the United States won its independence from Great Britain and drafted the constitution by which our country would be run, the American people demanded guarantees that the government could not take away the liberty for which they had fought – that every person has “certain unalienable rights.”
The Bill of Rights, containing the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, was written specifically to guarantee this liberty. Significantly, the very first amendment protects the free exercise of religion. Recent events demonstrate just how vital protections for religious rights can be. We are blessed as Catholics to have robust teachings to support us as we raise our voices in the public square in solidarity with those who are persecuted or oppressed, whether here or anywhere in the world. We put our faith in action when we speak about our belief in the sanctity of life – opposing abortion and the death penalty, defending the poor and the immigrant, decrying unjust laws that drive our brothers and sisters who live on society’s periphery even further into the shadows.
At times we are criticized for proclaiming the values of our faith as we participate in public life and work for the common good. However, the Church has always followed the teaching of Christ to feed the hungry, care for the sick and visit those in prison. While Christ’s example is the foundation of what now is known as “Catholic Social Teaching,” we also have more than 100 years of papal and Vatican documents to guide us, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” published in 1891. The Holy Father emphasized the Church’s responsibility to speak out on social issues in order to “safeguard the public welfare and the promote the common good.”
Pope Leo’s successors to the Throne of Peter have continued to address social injustices and to call Catholics to speak in the public square to bring attention to these matters and help build a just society. As Pope Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
For Catholics, the obligation to teach the moral truths that shape our lives “is central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ,” as the U.S. bishops wrote in their 2007 document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” These moral truths transcend political parties and ideologies. As the bishops note, “Decisions about political life are complex and require the exercise of a well-formed conscience aided by prudence.”
In the United States today we face many issues that threaten the sanctity of life: abortion, racism, the death penalty, migration, xenophobia and the degradation of the environment, to name a few. None of the nation’s political parties has a platform that deals with all of these issues in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching. Therefore, as the U.S. bishops said in their 1998 statement “Living the Gospel of Life,” it is important for all citizens “to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.”
Now, as we celebrate Independence Day, let us also pause for a moment to say a prayer of thanksgiving for living in a country where our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are enshrined in the highest law of the land. Let us also remember that we are called to be the Body of Christ, unified, in solidarity with Christ, his Church, and one another. Let us also ask for the courage and strength to continue to exercise our right to speak in the public square to defend the life and dignity of every human person, to insist that the needs of the poor and vulnerable are met, and the dignity of work and the rights of workers be upheld. May we live up to the ideals of our forebears that those precious rights to life, liberty, happiness and justice be afforded for all and not only for some.