Religious Liberty Allows ‘Voice of Faith to Function as the Conscience of Society’

Cardinal Donald Wuerl warns against the rising dominance of a ‘monolithic secular point of view’ and offers Dignitatis Humanae, the groundbreaking Vatican II document, as an antidote.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Cardinal Donald Wuerl (photo: CNA/Michelle Bauman)

WASHINGTON — Amid attacks on religious liberty at home and abroad, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington presented Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” as an essential guide to a renewed defense of the “first freedom” and to religion’s culture-forming role in the public square.

As the Church prepares for the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, a Georgetown University conference, “Catholic Perspectives on Religious Freedom,” offered a forum for the cardinal and scholars to celebrate the groundbreaking document that formally affirmed the Church’s commitment to full respect for the rights of conscience and religious freedom.

Dignitatis Humanae (On the Dignity of the Human Person) states that the “exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind."

Further, because human persons are by nature “social” beings, the document states that freedom from coercion must also apply in the public sphere: “Injury therefore is done to the human person, and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society.”

Cardinal Wuerl embraced the document’s key principles in an address that warned against contemporary efforts in the U.S. to marginalize religious speech and witness. This trend, he said, was a radical departure from earlier social and political practices that acknowledged and accommodated the contribution of religion to the common good.

“As a nation, we are passing from one cultural structure in which moral and ethical principles rooted in religious faith are seen as normative to a culture that marginalizes religious faith as mere personal preference,” Cardinal Wuerl told the scholars gathered at the Sept. 13 conference organized by Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project and the Maryland Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

The cardinal argued that the sidelining of religious speech and related natural-law principles has weakened the quality of public discourse, now “increasingly narrowed into a ... monolithic secular point of view.” Young Americans no longer experience a “full-blown discussion that includes the contribution of authentic Christian values.”

This trend, he suggested, unjustly suppresses the voice of religious believers in the public square, but it also poses a danger to the American experiment in ordered liberty. It is time, he said, to chart a future course guided by the “foundational principles of Dignitatis Humanae,” starting with the Council fathers’ belief that “religious liberty proceeds from the dignity of the human person.”

The cardinal offered his defense of religious freedom and the enduring legacy of faith in American civic life during an election year that has showcased church-state conflicts in the U.S. and intense debate over Washington’s response to sectarian conflict in the Middle East.


While the U.S. bishops continue their crusade to overturn the federal contraception mandate that requires church-affiliated universities, hospitals and social agencies to provide co-pay-free contraception in their employee health plans, Church leaders in a slew of states also oppose efforts to redefine marriage.

The Maryland Bishops’ Conference, which is engaged in a tight state referendum battle to block the legalization of same-sex “marriage,” sponsored the Georgetown symposium.

Mary Ellen Russell, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said local Church leaders viewed the Georgetown conference as an opportunity to raise awareness about emerging threats to religious liberty.

Catholic leaders have argued that same-sex “marriage” directly threatens the free exercise of religious institutions that oppose this practice on moral grounds, and a number of diocesan adoption and foster-care programs across the country have closed because they would not place children with same-sex couples.

Yet Russell acknowledged that it “was still difficult for people to anticipate the inevitable conflicts that individuals and institutions would face if marriage is redefined.”

“Marriage is woven in to the fabric of our daily lives,” she said, but “many Americans haven’t contemplated how they would maintain their belief in traditional marriage when [the law] redefines” a fundamental social institution.

Meanwhile, events in the Middle East have broadened the context for high-level discussions about the present and future status of religious liberty across the globe, amid reports of increased persecution of religious minorities.

Cardinal Wuerl headlined the Georgetown symposium as news reports charted an explosion of religious violence and public demonstrations in the Middle East linked to a U.S.-made video defaming the prophet Muhammad.

The Obama administration quickly condemned the video as “disgusting,” and U.S. officials have since confirmed that the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, leading to the death of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was a terrorist attack. But the administration’s repeated apologies for the video have revived a fitful U.S. debate over free speech as a non-negotiable civil right and the proper respect owed religious beliefs in a pluralistic society.

Over the past two weeks, commentators of all faiths have noted the lack of corresponding governmental concern about the disrespectful treatment accorded revered figures in the Christian and Mormon faiths in publicly funded U.S. museum exhibits and in popular entertainment and cartoons.

In a Sept. 19 Wall Street Journal column that noted the popularity of The Book of Mormon, a Broadway hit that ridicules Mormonism and won nine Tony Awards, Bret Stephens observed: “In the consensus view of modern American liberalism, it is hilarious to mock Mormons and Mormonism but outrageous to mock Muslims and Islam. Why? Maybe it’s because nobody has ever been harmed, much less killed, making fun of Mormons.”

The ensuing discussion has also exposed a growing unease among some believers that people of faith are being marginalized because of their moral beliefs: opposition to same-sex “marriage,” abortion rights and, most recently, co-pay-free contraception, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

“[A]ctivists are working hard to impose standards and codes that would make it impossible for American business — and individuals — to support any but the most politically correct causes,” argued William McGurn in a Sept. 25 column that criticized efforts to use public-disclosure laws to target and harass those who supported a variety of conservative policies.

Cardinal Wuerl’s critique of a “monolithic secular point of view” offered a steely judgment of cultural and partisan attacks on faith-based speech and activism, and several other speakers at the Georgetown conference echoed his concerns.

Robert Destro, a professor of law at The Catholic University of America (CUA) and the director of its Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion, told the Register that young Americans have less exposure to religious beliefs that have become increasingly countercultural.

“A student told me that I was being ‘cruel’ to distinguish between heterosexuals and homosexuals, so I asked, ‘Don’t you distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual persons, when you use the terms 'gay, lesbian and straight?'" When you raise questions that make them uncomfortable, you get political correctness. They aren’t used to hearing other points of view,” said Destro.

In contrast, Dignitatis Humanae says, “We take people of faith as we find them; they can participate in public life,” said Destro.

John Garvey, the president of CUA and a constitutional scholar who has testified before Congress on the federal contraception mandate and the threat it poses to the free exercise of Catholic institutions, described the Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom as an “essential” testament to the value of religious liberty for people of all faiths.

“The argument it makes is not specific to Catholics. The desire for religious freedom and the corresponding importance of protecting that right in public life arises from our common human nature,” said Garvey, who was in the audience at the Georgetown symposium.

Garvey noted a recent German court ruling that outlawed circumcision, a traditional rite of religious initiation for Jewish and Muslim male infants.

“It is hard to imagine, with the Second World War still fresh in our minds, that we are fighting over the right of Jews and Muslims to engage in this practice. In Western society today, there is much less appreciation for the importance of religious practice,” he said.

On Sept. 26, after intense national debate and protests from Jewish and Muslim leaders, the German government issued proposed rules to keep circumcision legal.

Cardinal Wuerl, during his address, acknowledged the vital importance of interfaith efforts to defend religious freedom, and Pope Benedict XVI, during his recent trip to Lebanon, urged religious leaders to foster dialogue to help overcome sectarian violence and secure the foundations for democratic society.

Dignitatis Humanae, said the cardinal, defends the dignity of each person as the image of God to be free from coercion. Accordingly, the “role of government is neither to bestow nor hamper religious liberty, but to protect it.”

His presentation gave special weight to the Council fathers’ assertion that the state must recognize and protect the culture-forming role of religious speech and witness. The willingness of the state and of a people to accommodate the role of religion, he said, underscores a central truth that the “voice of religious faith” reminds the world that “not all the things we can do we ought to do.”

Religion’s function as the “voice of conscience in society” was once accepted without debate, the cardinal observed, quoting George Washington’s remark: “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principles.”

In the modern era, American labor and civil-rights leaders agreed with Washington and urged U.S. Christians to stand up for transcendent moral norms, noted the cardinal, who said that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. cited Thomas Aquinas’ dictum, “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in natural law.”

The Church will never forsake her role as an authoritative guide on faith and morals, Cardinal Wuerl said. “With two millennia of experience … the Church has a unique capacity to interpret the natural law. … We must never give up that role as the voice of conscience.”

Yet he suggested that any effort to engage the public should be part of a multifaceted and joyful articulation of religion’s enduring role in the life of the nation.

“With religious faith comes a way of living,” he concluded, “a set of standards for moral and civil behavior and those expectations of conduct that are threads to this day woven into the very fabric of our civil life.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.