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When Better Than the 4th of July to Talk About Religious Liberty

07/03/2014 Comments (98)

A reader writes:

First I love your blog and your common sense take on politics. It may seem strange but I was raised in an adamantly right wing household and it never occurred to me until I was well into my 20s that I didn't "have to" align myself with one political party or the other and accept whatever the "lesser evil" happened to be. Thanks for being a voice of reason in the midst of all the polarity.

I have a question about "freedom of religion" that has been nagging at me. If you have the time and/or inclination, I'd appreciate your thoughts. I have a very good, very conservative Catholic friend who adamantly believes that our country was founded on a Christian belief system and only Christians should be free to practice their religion openly. I have not asked but I suspect they'd be fine with Judaism as well, since they acknowledge the same God as Father that we do. Specifically they are opposed to any non-Christian faith that worships a non Christian deity, particularly the neo-pagan religions which they automatically equate as being a sort of "Satanism by default." These may not specifically address or believe in the devil, but because they engage in "occult" practices like tarot, they are worshiping him anyway. That kind of thing.

I feel like something is wonky with this reasoning and it's a slippery slope to quash the religious liberty of any individual. God gave us free will and He does not demand that we all follow Him or get arrested for doing otherwise. It's one thing if the law prohibits a specific religious practice causes harm to others, but what about people who want to pray in public to a non Christian deity, or read tarot cards, or cast runes? We don't agree with these practices, as Christians, but as Christians should we be demanding that they be outlawed because they are contrary to God's laws? And then where does it stop? Because as a former Protestant, I can tell you many Protestants don't consider Catholics to be "Christian" either, and equate some of our practices to such things as idolatry. So if we lived in a country that only allowed the open expression of Christian or Christian-compatible belief, where would we Catholics end up? Who would be the one making the call? Ideally to my friend, I suppose that would be the Catholic Church, but in reality, it would be our predominantly Protestant body of legislators.

Yet I'm aware that even that stance is its own slippery slope- what if someone's religion is all for marriage to anything with a pulse? Or without one, for that matter? I guess I feel like topics like gay marriage are on a different plane because there is a matter not just of "religious law" but of "natural law." I don't know if I'm just making excuses for myself or if I'm wrong on this. As an adult convert to the Church, I have a lot of trouble sometimes understanding what the mind of the Church is on issues like these, and the catechism doesn't always spell things out as clearly as some of us slower sorts need ;) Your thoughts would be appreciated!

To begin with, your friend needs to familiarize himself with the Decree on Religious Liberty from Vatican II. The document can be basically summarized as saying "Error does not have rights, but persons in error do have rights. So the Church does not compel people to make religious professions against their wills and opposes those (including Christians) who would attempt this. Our mission as Christians is to propose the Faith in freedom, not impose it by force.

Next, your friends, if they are going to start talking about other religious traditions, need to actually know what they are talking about, since the description you give suggests that almost everything they think they know comes from pop culture sources. So, for instance, the casual description of all non-Abrahamic religion as "satan worship" vastly over-simplifies things, just as the easy willingness to lump all expressions of Judaism and all expressions of Christianity together (presumably consigning Muslims to paganism and illegality) is tremendously simplistic.

One pernicious lie embraced by many Catholics since 9/11 is to imagine that Muslims "worship another god" despite the obvious teaching of the Church:

841 The Church's relationship with the Muslims. "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."

Many Reactionary Catholics protest this teaching of the Church and try to pretend that God and Allah are "two different Gods". The problem with this is twofold. First, there is only one God, not two. Second, such nonsense winds up participating in the oppression of their brother Catholics. How? Like this: Reactionary Catholics bent on telling Catholics that Allah is another god wind up agreeing with Radical Muslims that Arabic-speaking Catholics in Indonesia or Arabic-speaking Maronites in Lebanon should be banned from calling God what they have always called him in their liturgies: Allah.

Here's reality: Allah is just the Arabic word for the Deity, as Dieu is the French and Gott the German and Deus the Latin. Some will claim that because Muslims are non-Trinitarian, they don't worship the same God as Christians. The problem is, Jews also reject the deity of Jesus, yet are mysteriously given a pass, as your friends demonstrate. That's because such Christians are willing to recognize that you can worship God while having an incomplete understanding of him--if you are a Jew. But because of anger of 9/11 and other Muslim crimes, they refuse to cut Muslims the same slack--and wind up talking as though there are multiple gods and not one God who is understood in various levels of knowledge.

The Church's habit is always to affirm what can be affirmed in common with any religious tradition while, of course, noting the differences as well. Thus, St. Thomas could find much of value in the thought of both the pagan Aristotle and the Muslim Averroes. But the Church has historically gone much further even with paganism. So we find Paul affirming what can be affirmed with pagans in Acts 17 as he speaks to Greek pagans on the Areopagus. Likewise, the Fathers made all kinds of use of Plato In our culture of polarization however, many find this very hard. Outlawing other religions would only massively exacerbate that--in addition to being both wrong and foolish.

I think your instincts are right to be very leery about turning the state--particularly the post-modern state--into an instrument of state-enforced religion. The certain outcome of that foolish attempt will be something like what the once-Russian-Orthodox state of the USSR experienced when Caesar decided he didn't want Christians around any more than he wanted other religions. It is better to have a society in which people can pursue their conscience--even at the risk of being wrong--than a society where the state suppresses conscience for the sake of false unity. As we come up on the celebration of our nation's birth, one of the things we should be grateful for is the reality that nobody--not even Catholics with control issues--has been able to turn the US into a theocratic police state. And the result has been that the US is, virtually alone among first world countries, one of the most thriving religious cultures in the world.

I think that Catholics should focus on evangelizing the culture with grace rather than on subjugating the culture with the power of the state. Wasting time on trying to ban segments of the population from participating in self-governance is not only wrong, it is absolutely guaranteed to make sure that Catholics will meet with reprisals--quite just reprisals--from the people they attempt to dominate.

Hope this helps.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.