By Nathaniel Torrey
This past Thursday I attended a conference entitled “Catholic Perspectives on Religious Liberty” at Georgetown University. The conference consisted of three panels centered around Dignitatus Humanae, the document on religious liberty ratified by the Vatican II council. The document affirms that every human being has a right to religious belief, a duty to seek Truth, and to follow their conscience in understanding Truth free from coercion. I won’t summarize the whole conference, though I highly recommend going to such an event if one is interested in topics where religion, politics, and culture intersect.
I would like to briefly expound on some comments made by Gerard Bradley, a professor of law at Notre Dame University, in the first panel Dignitatus Humanae and the Legacy of Vatican II. Bradley articulates well the impoverished view of religious liberty understood as a right of license instead of a duty that ought to be free from coercion. He says,
In America, I think the trend is to greater individual liberty without an accompanying sense of responsibility. The zone of religion is not so much a zone of truth, much less transcendent truth, but rather in larger terms within which religion perhaps more properly understood might find itself, is a really a zone of identity, or discovery, of establishing one’s personality, of coming to grips with “the person I am,” and establishing it and announcing it to the world.
Bradley points out correctly the right of religious freedom should not be categorized as a right of self-determination. That is to say, human beings are not guaranteed freedom from being coerced into religious belief because they have a right to define meaning, existence, or life on their own terms. Rather, human beings ought to be guaranteed religious liberty in order to pursue truth without impediment. The document he and the other panelists were referencing, Dignitatus Humanae, does not use the language of self-determination either in the describing the ends of religious liberty. It states:
Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.
Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.
On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is 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.
Dignitatus Humanae affirms that religious liberty is founded in the intrinsic value of the human person. Because confessing Christ as Lord is of the highest value to the flourishing of the human person, he must be able to be given the most freedom in order to pursue that goal. The very nature of following Christ demands that it be freely chosen. Becoming a Christian has weight precisely because it can be freely chosen. If religious liberty is denied, faith no longer has any meaningful content.
Religious liberty is not a right to believe whatever one wishes, as if religious belief were in the same category as choosing where one works or lives, what music one listens to, what clothes one chooses to wear or how their hair is cut. It is not in the same category as freedom of taste. It is the recognition that “As the deer longs for the springs of waters, so my soul longs for You, O God” (Psalm 41:2). It assumes Truth and it assumes humanity’s natural desire to want to know and understand it. Since the Truth is what matters the most, human beings ought to freely pursue it without coercion. If a man is dying of thirst, there is no need to tell him how to drink the water; just make sure he is able to get the water!