The Constitution of the United States and, in particular, the First Amendment, recognize fundamental human rights, among which is the freedom of every person to the exercise of religion freely, that is, without restraint or constraint by government. Like other rights, the exercise of religion is not free without the right of free association, also constitutionally guaranteed.
The alarming rate at which these fundamental rights are being challenged today in our country has prompted the American bishops to address the issue head-on. In his letter of Sept. 29, 2011, to his brother bishops, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, announced the formation of an ad hoc committee to address growing concerns about the erosion of religious freedom in America. Archbishop Dolan documents eight such restrictions, which affect a broad spectrum in which people of faith pursue the works of justice and charity, including healthcare, education and the workplace.
The heart of the issue is the right for people of faith, both individually and in free association with others, to participate fully in public life. This includes the right to take an active part in the political process and the formation of public policy. Long-standing federal tax code restrictions on the content of speech from the pulpit were challenged last Sunday by a number of churches, as reported in The New York Times (“The Political Pulpit,” Sept. 30, 2011, by Stephanie Strom). A number of preachers are attempting to force litigation of these regulations by speaking very candidly not only on the issues but those candidates whom they do or do not endorse for their positions.
In practice, Catholic teaching draws a very clear distinction between advocacy on specific social, political and moral issues on the one hand, and the endorsement or non-endorsement of specific political candidates on the other. Canon Law forbids clerics to hold elective office. It would be a departure from this tradition to call for the election or defeat of any specific candidate. This does not, however, mean that certain positions of politicians or other public figures cannot be directly challenged in the public forum —which includes the pulpit — on grounds rooted in faith or natural law.
Much of the Church’s moral and social teaching, while firmly rooted in Gospel values, is based on natural law, understood in the Thomistic sense as “right reason.” In part, this derives from the Church’s own theological tradition which, understanding grace as building upon nature, begins with the nature of the human person and human acts as a primary principle in all moral discourse. Such reasoning enables people of faith to enter into dialogue with others who do not share the same theological convictions but do follow the logic of reasoning rooted in human nature, which can be observed and study empirically.
Many of the Church’s teachings — not only on the more controversial issues such as abortion and same-sex unions but also on the rights of immigrants and workers, for example — are embraced by people of other faiths or even no religious faith based on a common, rational understanding of the nature of the human person. The Church has always understood its pastoral mission as a service to all humanity, not only its own flock. Thus the use of the pulpit or any other means of public communication in the defense of fundamental human rights such as the free exercise of religion and free association are viewed as a religious obligation and a public service.
It is a perennial temptation of those in positions of power to seek the means at their disposal to restrain the voices of those holding them to accountability. The wisdom of the founders of our nation is clearly seen in their recognition of this tendency and the checks and balances required to protect citizens from its consequences. The First Amendment survives as such a bulwark, but if it is not continually upheld and defended through those whose words and actions it protects, it can quickly become a wistful memory.