Freedom of worship or Freedom of religion?

07-01-2012Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

Over this past year I've noticed that Secretary of State Clinton often refers to freedom of "worship" and not freedom of religion. I wondered why the shift especially coming from the US State Department, which historically has pushed for freedom of religion throughout the world for generations. Well it appears, at least according to the State Department that the reason for the shift is that talk of religious freedom sort of spooks out many Muslim nations. That is because religious liberty is not seen by them as a right and often is seen as a threat to Islam. (Christianity also was wary of religious freedom prior to the 18th century and the Church eventually settled on the position that Christianity and Religious Liberty are not incompatible. This is something Islam has yet to work out.) Hence the State Dept. believes it can push many of these countries to allow at least freedom of worship, that is; non-Muslims living in Muslim nations be permitted to non-Islamic worship so long as it is contained in the four walls of a church, synagogue or ashram. The official line then from the Secretary of State is that the Administration is demonstrating "sensitivity" to Islamic nations.

While this may work as a short term diplomatic strategy to work up to an insistence on religious freedom as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and inscribed in the U.S. Bill of Rights, it should not be the policy stance of the US. Unfortunately the Secretary of State has also used the term "freedom of worship" in reference to the US and seems to be adopting this limited notion of religious freedom as the Administration's official interpretation of the First Amendment in order to justify policies that run afoul of our long held and broad understanding of religious freedom. I must say it was a very subtle and clever shift, which I guess the State Department figured would go unnoticed or that people would equate the two as synonymous. But it has been noticed and they are not synonymous.

It is a bit of historical irony that the Church who initially held that a restrictive version of religious freedom was preferable to the more liberal vision held by our nations founders, now finds itself defending a robust right to religious freedom against national leaders who have a narrower view of religious liberty! In our own case we can thank Fr. John Courtney Murray, a US priest who provided a solid theological basis for religious freedom that put aside once for all any Catholic concerns with an unfettered right to religious freedom. His classic work: "We hold these Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition" is still worth a read. In it he successfully argues that the idea of a limited government and the separation of Church and state allows citizens the opportunity to have moral control over their own religious beliefs instead of being told what to believe by a paternalistic state. For us that is a no-brainer but there was a time when these ideas were new and threatening.

The problem then with a truncated freedom of "worship" is that it puts believers in straightjackets if you will by not allowing religious beliefs to be expressed in any substantial way outside a church. For us as Christians and Catholics who adhere to the teaching of Jesus to care for the sick for example, means that we incarnate that teaching by operating hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, hospices etc. Not that this is the only way to care for the sick but it is the way we have chosen to do so. Which means that we have set up institutions that are extensions of what we believe, which then by their very nature are religious and part of the free exercise of religion.

The issue of religious liberty is not insignificant nor should it be supplanted by a false understanding of individual rights. We as Catholics can serve our nation well by standing up for religious liberty. However if we fail to truly believe our faith and honestly live out our faith then religious liberty becomes an empty idea. If we do not believe in God then religious liberty is of no value. And that is why many people, including non practicing Catholics don't see what all the fuss is about. If I never engage religious practice why would I need freedom of religion? Or since I don't own or read a newspaper, why do I need freedom of the press?

Unless we exercise our rights they tend to atrophy and disappear. And nothing guarantees our liberties except our willingness to fight for them. Religious liberty is not a privilege granted by the state. It's our birthright as children of God. And it is our religious obligation and our duty as citizens to exercise it openly and resist attempts to reduce it to mere freedom of worship.

There are for sure many enemies of the Church but its fiercest enemies come from within. The worst enemies are not "out there" but right among us: the clergy, religious and laity that are lukewarm and even hypocritical. If our hearts are strong and energized by faith than no bigotry can stamp out our faith. That's the heart of the matter.

America bless God!

Love,


Fr. John Bonavitacola

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