October 19, 2010


The First Freedom: Religious Liberty as the Foundation of Human Liberty: The freedom of the Church must be claimed and reclaimed by Christians in each new generation. (THE MOST REVEREND CHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP., October 15, 2010 at a catechetical conference sponsored by the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia)

Some of you here tonight will know the name of John Courtney Murray. He's worth remembering. Father Murray was the American Jesuit who helped craft the Second Vatican Council's landmark Declaration on Religious Liberty.

A year after World War II ended, with millions dead and Europe and Japan in ruins, Murray wrote that "those who deny the sovereignty of God over human society are the most dangerous enemies of human liberty."

He wasn't speaking about National Socialism or Communism. He was talking about European Liberalism. That's Liberalism with a capital "L," the system of ideas; the kind of secularism that preached individual freedom while pushing religion out of the public square.

Murray saw that religious freedom is humanity's first and most basic freedom. Religious faith speaks to the purpose of life, the meaning of death and the nature of the human person. It's a God-given right, inherent to human nature. It precedes the state. It is not dependent in any way on any human authority for its legitimacy. And any attempt to suppress the right of people to worship, preach, teach, practice, organize and peacefully engage society because of their belief in God is an attack on the cornerstone of human dignity.

My talk tonight has a simple purpose. I want you to leave here thinking about religious freedom. [...]

This brings me to my fourth and final point:

4. In the face of growing secular hostility, we need to preach and practice a Christianity of resistance.

In the early Church, Christians said: "The Church belongs to God; therefore, she ought not to be assigned to Caesar."[9] If those words are true – and they are – then we need to actively resist efforts by government to meddle in Church teaching and internal affairs, and to interfere with the life of her faithful. Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty claims the autonomy of the Church in uncompromising language:

As the spiritual authority appointed by Christ the Lord with the duty, imposed by divine command, of going into the whole world and preaching the Gospel to every creature, the Church claims freedom for herself in human society and before every public authority. The Church also claims freedom for herself as a society of men with the right to live in civil society in accordance with the demands of the Christian faith.

The Church's freedom is never leased or bartered from Caesar. She takes part in the freedom of Jesus Christ himself. The council says that the relationship between the Church and Jesus is so intimate, that to restrict the Church's freedom of action is "to oppose the will of God."

John Courtney Murray often stressed that "the freedom of the Church" is one of the seminal ideas in Western history.

Large portions of human life exist outside the government's competence, and government has no authority to intrude on them. By insisting on her divine liberty, Murray said, the Church laid the foundations for Western notions of limited government and freedom of conscience, and made possible the emergence of a "civil society" – a sphere of public life that mediates between the individual and the state.

The freedom of the Church is never a threat to good government. It is rather a hedge against the vanity of earthly rulers and their tendency to crowd out rival authorities.

Some of you will remember from history that in 1075 Pope Gregory VII was forced to excommunicate the German King and Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Henry had seized for himself the power to appoint or "invest" bishops.

The drama of a chastened Henry traveling to Canossa where the Pope was staying, and then waiting in the snow for three days for forgiveness, is one of the key scenes in Western history.

Today Gregory's words about the freedom of the Church sound prophetic:

We make it our business, under the inspiration of God, to provide weapons of humility for emperors, kings and other princes, so that they may be able to restrain the floods of their pride. … For we are aware that worldly glory and secular anxiety usually do draw into pride … those who rule; as a result, neglecting humility and pursuing their own glory, they perpetually yearn to dominate the brethren.

Let me close with a few simple observations.

First, don't be afraid. God never abandons the people who love him. God created each of you for a purpose. Only you can accomplish it for him. He'll never forget you, or stop loving you, or ignore the prayer of an honest heart. So claim the freedom that is already yours by right. Have the courage to preach Jesus Christ, and to teach the Catholic faith by the example of your lives.

Second, love the Church. No one can love an institution. No one can love a bureaucracy. The structures of Church life can't be "loved" – and yet they're unavoidable in doing ministry in the modern world. But the Church is vastly more than her structures. The soul of the Church is the soul of a mother; the heart of the Church is the heart of a mother – our mother, our teacher, our source of solace and strength.

Finally, remember that the Church is missionary by her nature. She cannot remain silent. She exists for just one purpose: to convert, renew and make holy the world; to carry out the mission that Jesus Christ gave her, one soul at a time. Catholics are a missionary people – engaged with the world, witnessing to the world, and struggling for the soul of the world without apologies – or our baptism means nothing at all.

The freedom of the Church must be claimed and reclaimed by Christians in each new generation. Our turn is right here, right now, tonight. So may God grant us the courage, intelligence, and energy to preach Jesus Christ and to claim our sacred liberties. And with God's help, may we turn our nations away from creating the kind of world where those liberties are denied.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2010 7:16 PM
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