Freedom and the Dignity of the Human Person
Writing to the United Nations in 1978, Pope John Paul II asserted, "Religious freedom…is the basis of all other freedoms and is inseparably tied to them all by reason of that very dignity which is the human person" (Letter to Kurt Waldheim, Dec 2, 1978). That is to say, without religious freedom, we have no freedom at all. Though prized more than almost any other human right and gift, in what consists true freedom is often unknown or misunderstood.
Society without God: "Free to do what I want!"
Modern man considers freedom to be the right to do whatever he wants, for he seeks nothing other than himself as the purpose and goal of his life. He wants to be totally independent, to be free from any laws or dogmas, from any "thou shalt" or "thou shalt not!" He inevitably denies the existence of God, who is for him a tyrant infringing upon his "rights" and "freedoms". Ultimately, he denies truth and any norm of life, for these would make demands upon his life which he would rather avoid. This is the beginning of the "dictatorship of relativism", of which we were warned by Pope Benedict XVI shortly before his election as Pope. This dictatorship "does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires" (Homily, Mass for the election of a Pope). Of course, to live in society one must admit the necessity of some laws to maintain order, but a secularist society seeks to guarantee this sense of "freedom", the right to do whatever you want, as far as possible.
Freedom and Truth
But is this freedom? Is this total independence from God and ethics and law the fount of human happiness? Does this contribute to the dignity of man and his ultimate fulfillment? Pope John Paul II stated, "Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought." Man's right to freedom, and first of all, to freedom of religion and conscience, is based on truth, the truth about God and the truth about man. Man was created by God and was made for God. He is by very nature free because he is a spiritual being, endowed by his Creator with intellect and free will. He has a spiritual, transcendent vocation to enter into an eternal friendship with God. Created in the image and likeness of God, he was set above the animals in that he has the capacity to freely choose to serve his Lord and God, and enter into communion of love with Him. Hence, his freedom does not come from the State—nor can it be taken away by the State. It comes to him as a human person created in the image of God. As St. Augustine discovered after having abused his human freedom for many years, man's very happiness consists in obeying God and the natural law in his heart, his conscience. "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" (Confessions, I, 1). We are only truly free when we are free to make decisions that orientate our lives towards fulfilling God's will, directing all our actions towards our true destiny in life, eternal happiness with God.
But from the beginning man has turned away and sought independence from the law of God. The tempter seduced him with a longing for "freedom": "No, you will not die [if you disobey God], but you will be like God", determining for yourself what is good and evil! Relativism. Our will has been enslaved so that it no longer can pursue the good and the true, but wants only to seek and gratify the "self" with all the deceptive and ethereal goods of this world. Since the first fall, all sin and disobedience and infidelity have been rooted in this lure of "freedom", to be a god to oneself. He stole from us the freedom of the sons of God and made us slaves, first to sin and ultimately to himself. God, on the other hand, does not seek slaves, but sons who cling to Him freely out of love
Interior freedom and joyful obedience out of love
Some might object, if we have to obey rules or laws, even if it is God's law, we are not free. We are slaves. But is a woman a slave of her husband for serving him and doing all sorts of things for him, conforming herself to his will out of love, or vice versa? No, where there is love, there is freedom, there is mutual self-giving and service. In the same way, it is our privilege to serve God as beloved children. This great and infinite God has taken us as sons! We want to do His will out of love and find our joy and happiness in doing His will, in giving ourselves to Him out of love.
We have been created by God and are ordered to God. Our happiness can therefore only be found in walking towards God and being united with Him. The Son of God also became "obedient, and obedient unto death, death on a Cross" out of love for the Father. Through this same Cross, Jesus freed us from slavery to sin and self and the devil. He freed our will from this servitude in which we find neither peace nor lasting happiness, that we might run with joy to meet our Father. After every good, deep and sincere Confession, we feel the joy of this renewed freedom from sin, and in our gratitude, we want nothing other than to do the will of God, to remain one with Him. This is not subservience or slavery, but the fulfillment of our inmost longing and of the deepest desire rooted in our very being: the desire for union with God.
Freedom in society: Giving to God what is God's
Society is made by man and for man. It must therefore respect this truth about man, his inalienable dignity and right to freedom of conscience, his right and duty to pursue the good, the true and the beautiful, to serve God as he is led and enlightened by reason and grace, both internally and externally. "The practice of religion by its very nature consists primarily of those voluntary and free internal acts by which a human being directly sets his course towards God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. But man's social nature itself requires that he give external expression to his internal acts of religion, that he communicate with others in religious matters and that he profess his religion in community" (John Paul II, Dignitatis humanae, 3)
The Church is not the enemy of the state nor opposed to secular rule. On the contrary, Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's" (Mark 12:17). "We look to the State not to impose religion but to guarantee religious freedom, and to promote harmony among followers of different religions" (Bishop William E. Lori, National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, April 27, 2011). The problem arises when the State tries to limit the presence and works of the Church to the pew, to utilize "nondiscrimination" laws and codes in such a way as to discriminate against religious organizations! They are told, in opposition to the demands of conscience, whom they are to employ, what services they must cover in health care, and what they must assent to unless they want to be severely penalized or forced to close their doors.
Profane secularism: The analogy with Communism
Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the fearless Primate of Poland under communist rule, clearly rebuked the Soviet regime which had gone so far as to mandate even the appointment of pastors, vicars and Bishops. In a homily at St. John's Cathedral in Krakow, he stated, "We teach that it is proper to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's. But when Caesar sits himself on the altar, we respond curtly: he may not!" (quoted by Bishop Paprocki, see below).
In the "Red Mass Dinner" on September 29, 2011 in Houston, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, offered insights from his visit to Moscow as a graduate student in the early 1980's. "For the Soviets, 'freedom of religion' more accurately meant 'freedom of worship,' that is, people were free to pray in church, but outside of church they were not allowed to teach the faith or engage in faith-based charitable activities." He contrasts this model to what, up until recently, the "free exercise of religion" meant in America, as protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. "I thought of our vast network of Catholic institutions in the United States: our schools, our colleges, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, and social service agencies." Citing William McGurn he continues, "The radical part of [the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion in America] was the guarantee it gave to corporate freedoms: to hold public property together, to own newspapers, to run schools, to open hospitals and clinics."
Though communism as an ideology has fallen, "profane secularism" has assumed these same tenets, even here in America. People can worship God in a church, but woe to you if you bring His Name or principles into the public square! Cardinal George wrote in a column of his diocesan newspaper, "The purpose of communism and contemporary secularism is the same: to create a society where God cannot appear in public, to erase any evidence of religious belief from the public life and to prevent the Church from acting in history, confining the Church's mission to private worship, carrier of a belief system that can have no influence on society except on secularist terms. In this sense, secularists in this country and elsewhere are successors of the communists of the last century." (The Catholic New World, August 28, 2011, p. 3). (In 19th Century Portugal, a secularist government went so far as to suppress all religious orders, including our own, the Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross.)
Placing our trust in the Cross of Christ
Though we feel helpless in the face of the great problems of our country and society at large, we are not without means of effecting a change in the world about us. We can and should, of course, take all the human means at our disposal for establishing religious freedom, and that means first of all to vote. We are obliged as Catholics to vote pro-life, and to vote for those who will safeguard all human rights, beginning with freedom of religion. But even more importantly, we must look to our own lives and our own hearts. For change can only come through conversion of heart, and each of us knows that we ourselves also need to be continually converted.
We, too, need to let go of our own self, our own disordered desires, and turn again to God. Conversion is within reach of all of us, and this is God's promise: "If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation, and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness… Then the Lord will guide you always and give you plenty… The ancient ruins will be rebuilt for your sake, and the foundations from ages past you shall raise up" (Isaiah 58:9-13).
In other words, the more we abandon our own interests and seek to do good to others in concrete ways, to be kind and helpful to our immediate neighbor for the love of God, the more God Himself will be a light for us and in us. God's Kingdom is not built through political power, but through purifying our hearts, one by one, from all the contagion of this world, so that He may take up His dwelling within us. Then from within, He will be a light and strength for us, and His Spirit will guide our words and actions in the public forum that they may bear good and lasting fruit.
In this time of grace, therefore, let us make every effort to renew our status as sons, to free ourselves from all our attachments and sins, of everything that binds and enslaves us to self. Though we all feel a war within ourselves, a battling of the flesh against the spirit (cf. Gal 5:17), we have nevertheless been set free by the Cross of Christ, through which we can put to death our old self. The mysteries we commemorate each year in Holy Week by uniting ourselves lovingly with the sufferings of our divine Savior through prayer and penance help us to forget ourselves and enter more fully into the sacred Passion of Christ. And the more we unite ourselves with His suffering, the more will we also be united with His Resurrection.
The entire Season of Easter is the celebration of Christ's victory, the victory of the Cross over sin and death. Our first battle is always a battle within, a spiritual battle to let Christ reign within me. Only in His strength and in the strength of His Cross will we be able to meet the challenges of Christian life in today's society and bear more perfect witness to the freedom of the sons of God, the freedom to do what is right whatever the cost. The angels are ready to help us, if we call on them and cooperate with their inspirations, to know and overcome our own weaknesses, and to place our trust in the grace of God with confidence in His help. And Mary, our Mother and Mother of the Church, is ever at our side with her consoling love to lead and guide us through the trials of this life to the full victorious joy of Easter.