Religious Freedom Is Key To Effective Missionary Discipleship
The theme for this year’s Fortnight for Freedom, “Freedom for Mission,” is meant to coincide with the special focus of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on missionary discipleship. As in years past, since first celebrated in 2012, the Fortnight for Freedom extends from June 21 to July 4, calling us to 14 days of prayer, education and action for religious freedom in the United States and abroad. We are especially encouraged to engage in the three-fold exercise of prayer, reflection and action during this special time. During this particular two-week period, the Church’s liturgical calendar recalls a number of martyrs who remain steadfast in persecution by those in political power. The U.S. Supreme Court often renders its rulings during this period of time each year, often involving issues related to religious liberty. Freedom is a core principle of both the U.S. Constitution and Catholic teaching, deemed an inherent right of every person. Every right, of course, has corresponding responsibility on the part of every person as well.
One of the key documents produced by the Second Vatican Council was its “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (Dignitatis Humanae), published on 7 December 1965. The Declaration, which focused “On the right of the person and communities to social and civil liberty in religious matters,” provided the following general principle:
“The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious
freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion
on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due
limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions nor is anyone to be restrained
from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters in private or in
public, alone or in associations with others. The Council further declares that the
right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known
through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human
person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional
order of society as will make it a civil right” [DH, n. 2].
Catholic teaching involves a delicate balance of several values and principles. At times, some individuals may even question whether conflict exists between particular principles. Tension, which differs from conflict, is not necessarily a bad thing. Where mutual respect and dialogue exist, tension can actually lead to greater insight, appreciation and advancement in such values and principles. Such is the nature of accompaniment. Given one of the key principles of Catholic social teaching that recognized the corresponding relationship of rights and responsibilities, a person may not appeal to religious liberty as a means of behaving in a prejudicial, intolerant or immoral manner. Disagreement, however, is not the same as discrimination. The search for actual truth is both a right and responsibility of each and every human person. Catholics must especially rely on the Deposit of Faith—namely, Scripture and Tradition—for such truth.
Each diocese, as well as each parish within a diocese, marks the Fortnight for Freedom in its own particular way. Resources have been provided to each parish to assist in enabling those interested and willing to engage in this unique opportunity of prayer, discernment and advocacy for religious freedom in our country as well as other nations. As the USCCB has declared on several occasions, violent persecution of religious believers continues to increase around the world. Many Christians, as well as people of other faith traditions, have made the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs. During this period of time, let us pray for a greater respect for religious freedom in our own country in order that our nation may continue to be a beacon of hope and outreach to those who are being persecuted in other nations. We must never allow religious freedom to be relegated to some type of conditioned privilege or exception of the law. To consider religious freedom to be anything less than an inherent right of a person’s dignity is to fail to appreciate and respect the role of conscience in individuals, which extends to families and religious communities, as well as society.
As challenging as persecution and violence can be to those who are made to suffer for their religious beliefs, apathy and indifference may be even more devastating to the cause of religious freedom. The purpose of the Fortnight for Freedom is to awaken in us the indispensable importance of freedom to individuals, families, societies and nations. Where religious freedom is respected, the Church and religious communities are able to carry out the missions of ministry and service. Let us not only pray for ourselves, but also remember in prayer our sisters and brothers facing persecution in various places around the world. Prayer, education and action make a difference. Each of us has something to offer to the cause. Christians must always keep in mind, however, that our words and efforts are to be Christ-centered. Our focus must always be on the will of the Father, the mission of the Son and the movement of the Holy Spirit. May our desire for freedom never be apart from God, but always remain in communion with the Holy Trinity.