ARLINGTON, Va. — Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., implored Catholics to speak up for religious freedom and for truth after explaining the link between the two at a lecture in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 23.
“Freedom of religion is the most basic of all the human rights, because the other human rights are limited to matters of time,” he said in a talk at the Institute of Catholic Culture. “Freedom of religion relates to my eternal salvation: whether I’m free to achieve that, by God’s grace, or not. There’s nothing more important than that.”
Bishop Morlino spoke on Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II declaration outlining the Church’s relationships to states and the proper understanding of religious freedom. Explaining the historical development of religious freedom as a concept, he said that the last three ecumenical councils — Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II — are “the Church’s responses to modernity.”
He described how, prior to modernist philosophy, both the Church and society recognized that “to know the truth meant that there was a correspondence between the mind and the reality out there.” This correspondence enabled man to know the natural law — the participation of human reason in Divine law.
“There was a conformity of the mind to what was real, independent of the mind,” the bishop explained. The philosophical movement of modernity, he added, was a “major turn in the way human beings thought about knowing.” It shifted thinking towards a more subjective view of reality, in which the individual’s perception determines what he or she thinks to be real.
“Instead of being accountable to what is independent of the mind,” Bishop Morlino said, under a modernist view, “the world is what I think it is.”
In this understanding, “it was decided that there is no reality independent of the mind.”
This understanding of reality and the truth had profound implications for the meaning of conscience. In the original understanding of the term, “the natural law holds conscience accountable,” because the conscience guides the individual to recognize and act upon the truths of the natural moral law, Bishop Morlino explained.
“The conscience is not a dispensation machine from what is right,” he continued, though “this is how it’s used today.”
He said that this misinterpretation of conscience has transformed natural-law arguments “into denominational beliefs” taken upon faith.
“Catholics don’t observe the natural law because we’re Catholic; Catholics observe the natural law because it is true.”
The natural law in and of itself is not a matter of faith, because “natural-law positions are discernible by reason alone” and are “for everyone.”
However, “if everyone is composing his or her own world, there’s got to be conflict,” the bishop said, and the conflict between modernism and natural law has grave implications for persons of faith.
“The natural law frees me to seek the truth about God, and thus seek my salvation,” Bishop Morlino stated.
“No one has the right to block or interfere with my relationship with God; no one has the right to block my ability to do what is right.” Religious freedom is a unique issue, he added, because it has eternal consequences and thus, there’s “nothing more important” or fundamental to other, more temporal, rights.
Properly conceived, the bishop continued, “religious freedom is freedom from the state on religious matters.”
“That’s not what we have,” he explained. “We have secularism being imposed by the state and the mass media along every conceivable line.”
This secularism, he continued, “destroys conscience, rejects the natural law,” and stigmatizes people from acting upon what they know, through reason and natural law, to be true.
Bishop Morlino said that Catholics must be better advocates for the natural law and for a proper understanding of conscience, in order to promote respect for what the Church teaches.
He noted that many Catholics “profess with their actions that Christ is divided from the Church,” while claiming to be “witnesses to the fact that Christ is one with the Church.”
“People cannot live out internal contradictions indefinitely,” he warned, noting that persons in such a situation will eventually be in the position of affirming either the faith they profess or the secular norms they live.
He urged all people who care about religious liberty and freedom to “write letters to the editors” and to speak out in defense of the natural law.
“We Catholics need to stop keeping our mouths shut,” Bishop Morlino said, reflecting that Catholics should promote the natural law and a right understanding of knowledge, “not because they are Catholic, but because they are true.
“If Catholics continue to sit around and do nothing, we do a terrible disservice to society.”