As we celebrate our freedom this week on Independence Day, July 4th, it is a good time to see what the Catholic Church has had to say about religious liberty over the course of its history. As we understand it today, religious liberty is a fundamental human right. Every man should be free to seek the truth and express his understanding of the truth through his religion. However, because the Church exists in an ever-changing world, her perspectives of religious liberty and discussions regarding freedom have evolved over the centuries.

It is only in the last few hundred years that the concept of religious liberty has been applied to individuals. In years past, when kingdoms were the norm, monarchs compelled their subjects to practice their religion, thereby effecting an official State religion. While it may not sound appealing to us today, it made sense under these monarchies in their time periods. If a king believed his religion to contain the Truth, it would follow that he would want all his subjects to share in that truth, as he, ideally, would be looking out for the best interest of his subjects. This does not only apply to Catholicism, but to other major religions as well, like Islam and Judaism. Therefore, in this sense, freedom was not defined as being able to choose any religion, rather it was defined as the privilege of being free to celebrate the one Truth.

In his book, The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty, Michael Davies examines how the Church has dealt with the issue of liberty over time. Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) – lamented that in allowing a religious free-for-all, access to erroneous religions would put individuals at risk of not achieving salvation and there is no true freedom in not obtaining one’s salvation. Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) stated that allowing men to choose different “paths of truth” allows for their “ruin by a natural inclination to evil,” which is not freedom. Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) stated that an indifference to religion is contrary to human reason and that to say that anyone can achieve salvation through any religion is contrary to truth. Finally, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) asserted that allowing for any erroneous religion to be available removes the obligation of the State to honor and recognize God, because all religions would necessarily be equal in the eyes of the State. He recognizes this as dangerous since it creates an environment for the State to behave in a godless manner.

Now, these statements made by earlier popes seem to clash with our modern day understanding of religious liberty, however it is not difficult to understand why they resisted an openness to freedom of choosing any religion. If the mission of the Church is to lead all people to their salvation, it would be appropriate for the head of the Church to be concerned with all people having access to the fullness of the Truth found in the Catholic Church. Their concerns about people having the ability to choose anything less than the fullness of Truth are valid. We can see now that Pope Leo’s concerns about a godless State have been realized and the modern world has produced governments devoid of God and virtue.

Furthering the conversation, in his document, Libertas Praestantissium, Pope Leo XIII digs deeper into human liberty and how it is defined. He states that true human liberty is always ordered to God (#11). Therefore, men who allow God to have authority over themselves are actually protecting and perfecting their freedom, rather than stifling it (#11). He further explains that virtue is intimately linked to religion as man seeks the truth of God (#20). When man is given a false freedom to choose any erroneous religion outside of the Catholic faith, “the most terrible loss would be consequence of error” because of man’s sinful nature (#20). According to Leo, this is “no liberty, but its degradation” (#20). In other words, what Pope Leo XIII is telling us is that anyone who is a slave to sin is not, in fact, free at all and that freedom can be found in the Catholic Church because she assists in breaking the bonds of slavery to sin, leading us to virtue. Think about the course of your own life, where you may have been enslaved by a particular sin but were able to break free with the help of the sacraments and prayer.

With Vatican II comes a shift in thinking about religious liberty, which places the emphasis on the individual’s freedom to pursue truth for themselves. Since it is the right and obligation for every man to seek out the truth, it should be his right to express the understanding of the truth he has come to as he sees fit. No state religion or any other man’s religion should infringe on that individual’s own personal freedom. Dignitatis Humanae (DH) presents a much different tone than the earlier writings on the issues of religious liberty. DH begins by recognizing that this new understanding of freedom springs from a respect for the dignity of the human person (#1). Because of this inherent dignity, no man should be subject to coercion (#2). However, a man’s search for truth must also respect his own dignity as well as the dignity of others and men should assist one another in their quest for truth (#2). This assertion puts a greater responsibility on individuals for his or her own freedom than in the past, when the State made the decision for people. With freedom comes responsibility. DH further explains that having religious liberty means that outside entities cannot infringe on a person’s or group’s religious practices and efforts to evangelize and educate others (#4). Therefore, the document suggests that it is the responsibility of everyone in the Catholic faith to lead others to the Truth in charity, so that they might choose the Faith for themselves, leading them to their own genuine freedom in Christ (#8).

As conversations about liberty and freedom take place, both in the world and in the Church, the fundamental definition of freedom does not change – “and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). Freedom lies in ultimate truth, which is found in the person of Jesus Christ. Over the course of time, our approach to reaching that truth has changed, but the goal never has. By following Jesus, in the fullness of the truth found in the Catholic faith, we are released from the bonds of sin, we receive grace to help us to grow in virtue, and we are given the hope of a perfect eternal world where we achieve real freedom. Our faith is something that can never be given to us or taken away from us by any entity outside of ourselves because it comes from the Almighty God, Himself. This week, consider what real freedom is and how you can promote it by your own individual actions. Thank God for this gift and use it to help you to break free from any shackles that are preventing you from reaching the greatest good.

You can pray the Rosary Chaplet of Liberation which includes the prayer “If Jesus makes me free, I will be free indeed” while asking Him to heal, save, and free us.

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