The US Constitution, Religious Freedom and Vatican II

COMMENTARY: The First Amendment not only gives Catholics the right to practice our faith, but also creates the space in which we can evangelize.

Freedom of religion is included in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Freedom of religion is included in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. (photo: Shutterstock)

Do you remember the Baltimore Catechism’s Q&As? If you do, the answer to the question “Why did God make me?” should roll off the tongue: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” 

What does religious freedom have to do with this? Let’s take a look.

The Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, explains that all men and women instinctively seek the truth, which is revealed in its fullness in the teachings of God's Holy Catholic Church. The declaration adds that “the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth.” 

Hold that thought for a minute. 

It also throws a spotlight onto the Church’s mission of evangelization, explaining that for the Church to fulfill her divine mission — which is, of course, the salvation of souls — religious freedom must not only be proclaimed in words and incorporated in law but also be given sincere and practical application.

So here we have two ideas. First, Catholic truth can’t be imposed. Second, it flourishes where society guarantees religious freedom. 

They have a familiar ring to them, don’t they?

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States contains two clauses relating to religious freedom. The Establishment Clause says the government can’t interfere in religious matters. It’s not quite the same thing as the Second Vatican Council’s insistence that the truth can’t be imposed, but it’s entirely consistent with it. 

The Free Exercise Clause, meanwhile, protects our right to worship and behave in ways that are consistent with our beliefs. Again, it seems to anticipate the Council, which calls for the sincere and practical application of laws protecting religious freedom. 

To put it another way, the First Amendment not only gives Catholics the right to practice our faith, but also creates the space in which we can evangelize. 

When our constitutional freedom of religion comes under attack, so does the Catholic Church. And if you doubt that, just look at some recent clashes. 

Remember the Little Sisters of the Poor? They are still fighting the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Despite the government’s repeated losses in the Supreme Court, some federal officials still want to force these nuns to include abortion pills in their employee insurance plan. 

Meanwhile, Catholic doctors, nurses, hospitals and associations worry that those same officials dead set on enforcing the ideology of gender identity will require them to perform or pay for gender-reassignment therapies and procedures. 

This is where our nation’s religious-liberty laws are so crucial. They may be our only defense.

Last summer, the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s right to provide foster care for children without having to reject Church teaching on the nature of traditional marriage. It was a historic victory — but we’re going to need many more of them.

Hard-line progressives think nothing of forcing Catholics to conform to expanded antidiscrimination laws and other policy priorities as a precondition for serving the needy and advancing the common good. 

They also want to strip the Church of the right to make hiring decisions consistent with Catholic teaching. 

How should we respond? As Catholics, we can draw on a 2,000-year tradition of mobilizing as a community of believers. 

But, as the Second Vatican Council made clear, religious freedom is the sacred right of all human beings, enabling them to make choices that draw them to Christ. We must uphold that freedom for everyone. And, right now, that means doing everything we can to protect this crucial First Amendment freedom.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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