The Catholic and American Case for Religious Freedom

by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
April 2012

In June North Dakotans will vote on Measure Three, the Religious Liberty Restoration Amendment. A “yes” vote will mean that North Dakota will join the majority of the states that give real protection to religious freedom.

Protecting religious freedom is part of our cultural heritage as Americans. Our nation was founded on the “first principle” that the government cannot unduly infringe upon conscience and religious expression. As Catholics, however, our support for religious freedom goes deeper than the Constitution and our founding principles.

The Catholic basis for supporting religious freedom goes back to the Bible. Jesus compels to us to make a choice. Each person must decide for himself or herself whether to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, God incarnate.

Although Jesus proclaimed who he was and admonished wrongdoers, he never compelled anyone to believe in him. Likewise, the apostles preached the gospel but never coerced anyone to accept it. Thus, from the time of the church fathers, the church has taught that “man's response to God in faith must be free. No one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will.” At times, representatives of the church have fallen short of respecting this teaching, but the doctrine has never changed.

At the same time, the church recognizes that the dignity of the human person, knowable through the natural law, also demands respect for conscience and religious freedom. The human person is a rational being, with an innate desire to seek knowledge and truth. Not allowing a person to freely to exercise this capacity denies his or her dignity.

One can look at the church’s most recent expression of this teaching as a kind of story that goes from the early church, to America, and back to Rome.

The church had always taught this truth about the human person and religious freedom, but it was often lost in practice in the nations of Christendom. Almost every kingdom had an established religion and allowing other religious beliefs was viewed as detrimental to the common good and a threat to the state.

The founding of the United States was a experiment when it came to religious freedom. Although most of the Founding Fathers were hostile to anything other than Protestantism, and some of the colonies and later states had an established church, the concept of religious freedom found its way into the Constitution and the culture of the new country.

For them, the basis of religious freedom stemmed from the natural rights of man. In other words, it was rooted in their understanding of the human person according to the natural law. They recognized, as the Church has always taught, that denying religious freedom and conscience is a form of coercion contrary to the respect due to all human persons.

Religion flourished in the America. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville noted during his famous travels through the United States in the first part of the 19th century that America was a land where the state left religious matters to the citizens and the citizens were more religious than in the nations of Europe, all of which had an established religion.

The respect for religious liberty seen in the United States was, however, the exception and it was viewed with caution by those in Europe. For some thinkers in the church, “religious freedom” meant acceptance of relativism among religions and risked leading people away from the one true religion that subsists only in the Catholic Church.

American Catholics, such as Father John Courtney Murray, however, noted that true religious liberty respected the human person and allowed the Catholic Church to flourish with a freely engaged faithful. When the Second Vatican Council took up the question of religious freedom, the council looked at the experience of Catholics in the United States. The final document, Dignitatis Humanae, like the Founding Fathers, speaks of religious freedom as something due to human persons because of their inherent dignity.

In short, we have two reasons to support Measure Three - because we are Catholic and because we are Americans.