Happy Fourth of July: The US Constitution and Vatican II

Below is a talk I gave several years ago for the Fortnight for Freedom about our American contribution to the Catholic Church and our Catholic contribution to the United States:

Our two great loves--The Catholic Church and America. 

Living in Rome for five years made me more patriotic.  Thanksgiving and Groundhog’s Day of all days became displays of patriotism.  The Clericus Cup, an international soccer tournament pitting national groups of priests and seminarians against each other, was one of the biggest events of the year for many of us in Rome and a fun source of camaraderie among all of us studying in the Eternal City.

But it wasn’t always easy to be Catholic and American.  It sometimes seemed like to believe in the ancient Church whose history mostly took place in Europe meant that a person couldn’t truly be a part of the radical experiment in liberty and democracy that was taking place in the New World.

It took us a long time as Americans to find our place in the Church, and a long time as Catholics to find our place in America.  In the Vatican we were viewed as radicals and newcomers and at home we were viewed as superstitious and untrustworthy.  The story of Dignitatis Humanae—the Declaration on Religious Freedom, one of the last and most controversial documents of Vatican II, which we will talk about tonight, is the story of how we discovered a way to make it all work.  A story of how we showed that Catholics have something profound to add to the American system and how we made our one great contribution to the teaching of the Church.

We’ll start our story in America:

Religious liberty was, from the beginning, at the heart of the American project.  Our first settlers were fleeing religious persecution and from the beginning our country was made up of a variety of Christian traditions cobbled together.  There was and always has been a strong sense of God’s presence and Providence, that it is God who guarantees and ordains our freedom and rights.  Look at the preamble to the Declaration of Independence--

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;
— Preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence

But there was also a sense that the way in which a person chooses to worship is a freedom which cannot be taken away by the state.  Looking at the nation of Great Britain that they left behind they realized the damage that can be done to both the Church and the government when the two become indistinguishable—if for no other reason than history has shown us that governments aren’t very good at running churches and churches aren’t very good at running governments.  And besides that, it’s just not the job of either to do either.  And so they determined that the right to religious freedom should be a foundation upon which they would build this new nation.  It’s best expressed in the 1st and 14th amendments to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
— First Ammendment to the Constitution of the United States of America
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction there of, are citizens of the United States and of the State where in they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
— Fourteenth Ammendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Every American has the constitutional right to worship as they choose, it is in the Bill of Rights, it has been clarified and emphasized and resides right at the heart of our idea of freedom, it’s listed even before freedom of speech.

Now, all this talk about religious liberty was difficult for Catholics in Europe to accept.  They were used to Catholic kings and Catholic states.  The only example of democracy they had to work with was from the French Revolution where everyone’s head was chopped off, so they were skeptical.  For Catholics in America it seemed difficult to be both Catholic and American.  It seemed to many like a contradiction to say that the Catholic faith is true BUT that the government can’t favor the Church if Catholics are in the majority.

Over time, little by little, the ideal of religious liberty and democracy was introduced, often by Americans, and accepted by the Church. 

One of the great proponents of the idea that not only was the American system not contrary to Catholic teaching but that it was HELPFUL to it was a Jesuit priest by the name of John Courtney Murray.  While he was writing in the 50s and 60s he became something of a minor celebrity, even being featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1960s after he published his book on America and Catholic theology called We Hold These Truths

Murray said this—in America it’s not that the government can be described as atheist, but LAY.  The state in America is responsible for assuring that there is order and freedom so that the people can pursue their own end.  You can’t describe America as having a particular religion because in America it is not a king or queen or even a president who hold authority, but the PEOPLE as a whole.  The system in America allows Catholicism to truly flourish because it facilitates conversation and offers the freedom for people to choose to follow God without the use of force, something central to the early teachings of the Church.  Separation of Church and State, while a new idea for many Europeans, simply means that the American state allows Churches the freedom to ensure the spiritual well-being of their people and doesn’t assume that duty for itself which can happen in dictatorships and monarchies.  The American government is content to let the government govern and the Church sanctify.

Through the 50’s and 60’s the teaching of John Courtney Murray began to convince people in the Church that perhaps the American system, the idea that faith can only truly flourish when it is CHOSEN, not forced, is central to our Catholic identity and a God-given right.  So, after much arguing, much controversy, and with the help of the American John Courtney Murray the Second Vatican Council, in it’s final year, presented the document Dignitatis Humanae—on Human Dignity, which would enshrine forever in Catholic teaching the God-given right of each person to pursue their faith and follow their conscience without coercion.

First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men….

This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power…the Council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right…Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.
— Dignitatis Humanae, Second Vatican Council

The beautiful thing about the document is that it bases the right to religious freedom in the dignity of the human person.  We are all created in the image and likeness of God.  We are all endowed with a conscience.  Because of that God OFFERS himself for us to accept, but never forces us to accept his Truth. 

It means that we as a Church always offer our faith to be freely accepted, we continually enter into the discussion, showing the truth and the beauty of the Gospel, but we never force someone to accept.  We realize that, even for those who are raised in the Catholic faith, each individual must choose to follow Christ.  We believe that our faith is true, that the Catholic Church is instituted by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, but that our God gives us the ability and the capacity to accept that truth freely.

But there is another side to the teaching.  It also means that each person should be free to live out their faith.  That it is the responsibility of each state to ensure that individuals are able to live and act as their conscience tells them, that they are able, within reasonable bounds, to choose for themselves how to raise their children, serve the poor, and preach their faith.  Freedom isn’t just about allowing leaving people alone.  It isn’t just about allowing people to engage in trivial and unimportant things.  The deepest and most important freedoms are the ones that allow individuals to pursue meaning and purpose.  To allow people to pursue the most important things in their lives.  As Catholics that means the freedom to live our faith and our calling from God.  The freedom to follow our consciences, to serve the poor, to preach the Gospel.  Without that freedom the others become trivial.

Religious liberty is our great contribution as American Catholics.  It is one of our most cherished and basic freedoms as Americans and it is a tenant of our faith.  Our experience of democracy opened up to the world Church a new way to express and explain the inherent dignity of the human person.  Our little contribution is summed up so beautifully by one of our great American poets, who said:

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
— O Me! O Life!, Walt Whitman

Freedom of religion.  Freedom of conscience.  The dignity of the human person who is free to accept God’s call and live it.  That is our contribution as Americans to the powerful play, to the Church.  Be proud of it.  Be proud to call yourself an American.  Be proud to live your Catholic faith in freedom.