By Bishop Donald Kettler
St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “You were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve another through love.” This word of God to us directs me to emphasize during this third annual Fortnight for Freedom — which is dedicated to the defense of, prayer for, and education about religious liberty — this year’s theme: “Freedom to Serve.” Among the many irrevocable and irreplaceable purposes for protecting religious liberty is the need to protect the right of all citizens to be able to serve the poor and the vulnerable, as Jesus did, without forcing any person or institution to violate their consciences or principles in the process. Much of the Catholic Church’s teaching on religious liberty comes from the church’s 1965 document titled “Dignitatis Humanae — Of Human Dignity.” Its principles remain relevant today. “Dignitatis Humanae” teaches four foundational principles which I want to outline.
- No one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his or her beliefs. Religious freedom respects the dignity of every human being.
- This right to act freely and without external coercion does not mean a license to do anything one wants, but rather to live the moral obligation to always seek the truth and to do this for the common good, the good of society and the good of the world.
- The highest governing principle of human existence is following divine law, God’s law. The universe is God’s creation. All humans act within this creation. We must remember that God has an eternal plan, purpose and goal for all human activity and to everyone within this creation. We have to observe and follow God’s plan.
- The role of government is to provide for the common welfare of all its citizens and to protect all the rights and responsibilities of its people. Rather than suppress religious activities by placing restrictions and limitations on people’s freedom and consciences, government should enable people and institutions to care for the young and vulnerable, the poor and the ill through personal actions and through schools, hospitals and social service agencies.
Government regulations should create an environment where caring and serving flourish for the good of all. The church and her people must be advocates and defenders of these four elements of religious freedom. Our prayer here today asks God for assistance for us to do this.
Religious freedom is a gift from God
God’s gift of religious freedom of conscience is a cornerstone of all human rights. Without it, a just society is impossible. Religious liberty protects the ability of each person to pursue the truth, to embrace it and to shape their lives around it, without government coercion or the government or anyone else forcing people or institutions to violate their consciences. Religious liberty means more than being able to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the rosary at home. It means the right, duty and ability to contribute freely to the common good of all Americans in accordance with our religious beliefs. It is about letting Americans with a faith conviction contribute, as Jesus has called them to do, to the common good of all of society. So we gather today to pray for and to continue to work for the freedom of conscience right for societies’ institutions and individuals. This is not only a Catholic initiative; it is an ecumenical and human life issue. It is an American issue not only to fix the flaws regarding religious freedom of conscience and its present limitations in the HHS mandates, but it also extends beyond this issue. We want to serve victims of human trafficking. We need to seek immigration reform, as well as continue serving hot meals to the homeless and volunteering at women’s shelters, for example. So much of society is seriously impacted through the issue of religious freedom of conscience. We cannot ignore this.
“O God, enliven our brothers and sisters to use their gift of freedom not as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, to serve one another through love.” Bishop Kettler delivered this address as his homily at the June 29 Holy Hour during the Fortnight for Freedom.