Religious Freedom: The legacy of John Courtney Murray, SJ and Dignitatis Humanae
The proposed Mosque and Islamic Cultural Center that is being built two blocks from Ground Zero has caused a great uproar throughout our nation. While the uproar is based on the sensitivity of building an Islamic center so close to the 9-11 site, also known as park51, another consequence of this uproar has been the resurgence of ant-Islamic sentiment throughout the United States. In places throughout the Country local areas are actively protesting the building of other Mosques. The Center for American Islamic Relations has confirmed that anti-Islamic hate crimes have skyrocketed since the proposed park51 debate. Now again we hear people openly sharing their concern about President Obama being “a secret Muslim.” The Catholic community is very much in the midst of this struggle. In one Catholic institution in Long Island there is a flyer promoting an event to block a local Muslim community from building a Mosque in their community while at a Parish in another part of Long Island a Pastor preaches on tolerance and religious freedom.
With all this development, and with the anniversary of 9-11 approaching, it behooves us in the Passionist JPIC Community to join our Church in engaging with this debate and to again review our own understanding of Religious Freedom. This is an especially poignant topic for American Catholics since our national identity originated the practice of providing for the Constitutional protection of religious liberty. In making this examination this post will consider three things:
- The Constitutional protection of religious liberty
- The American Catholic acceptance of this principle
- The Catholic Church’s own decree on religious freedom
Our American Constitution provides for the protection of religious freedom. It is enshrined in the first article of the Bill of Rights. However it also true that the founders of this nation were predominantly Christian. Some argue that the Constitutional principles of this nation have its origin in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This may be the case and as can be imagined this consideration did play a role for how to consider the potential problems of religious liberty. The debates of 1788 had much concern with religious liberty but not so much with regards to its protection under the first article of the Bill of Rights as much as the regulation for public office that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office of public Trust under the United States” under Article VI of the Constitution. Two concerns were recorded with regards to this clause: that “Pagans, Deists and Mahometans might obtain offices among us”, and that “the Pope of Rome might be elected President”. These concerns were addressed by a Federalist delegate from North Carolina named James Iredell.
In his response he respects the concerns that have been raised but he believes that the creation of a dominantly pagan society and the threat of Papal rule were both slippery slope fallacies. Instead he argues that the historical reality of religious persecution through the sponsorship of the state to a religious creed is very much a real and valid concern. Delegate Iredell defends the clauses for religious liberty in this way:
But it is objected, that the people of America may perhaps chuse Representatives who have no religion at all, and that Pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmely contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised on every part of the world. The people in power were always in the right, and every body else wrong. If you admit the least difference, the door to persecution is opened.
The Catholic community did not take up these issues at the foundation because we were a minority group. However, by the mid 1900’s the Catholic presence and influence in the American landscape was made felt. No one did as much as Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ to develop a cohesive relationship between Catholicism and Americanism. In addressing the Catholic position on religious liberty he starts by striking down two American interpretations that he finds incompatible with Catholicism. Both interpretations treat the first amendment as an article of faith. A religious protestant interpretation integrates the amendment as a form of dogmatic teaching of the “free church” movement that believes that religion and spirituality is highly individualized. Religion has its proper role only in the individual and the constitution is enforcing this principle of faith. The secular liberal movement interprets the first amendment as a law whereby religious authority has no role in the American experience. Through this law the United States has developed a prohibition of commitment from religious institutions and any individual commitment will have no influence on the American pursuit of truth and justice.
The principle of religious liberty is seen by Fr. Murray as an article for promoting peace and he argues that any theological interpretation of a law whose true aim is the promotion of the common good and to protect the domestic tranquility of society is an error. He addresses this point in his seminal work “We Hold These Truths.”
As regards important points of ultimate religious belief, the United States is pluralistic. Any attempt at reducing this pluralism by law, through a process of reading certain sectarian tenets into the fundamental law of the land, is prima facie illegitimate and absurd.
The duty of the Constitution is not to discern what is theologically or morally right or wrong but to provide for the stable peace of society. Quoting Pope Pius XII’s discourse to a group of Italian jurists, John Courtney Murray goes on to tell us:
“The duty of repressing religious and moral error cannot be an ultimate norm of action. It must be subordinate to higher and more general norms which in some circumstances permit, and even perhaps make it appear the better course of action, that error should not be impeded in order to promote a greater good.”… In fact, the Pope goes much further when he flatly states that “in certain circumstances God does not give men any mandate, does not impose any duty, and does not even communicate the right to impede or to repress what is erroneous and false.” The First Amendment is simply the legal enunciation of this papal statement. It does not say that there is no distinction between true and false religion, good and bad morality. But it does say that in the American circumstances the conscience of the community, aware of its moral obligation to the peace of the community, and speaking therefore as the voice of God, does not give government any mandate, does not impose upon it any duty, and does not even communicate to it the right to repress religious opinions or practices, even though they are erroneous and false.
At the Second Vatican Council Fr. Murray was brought in to help draft the text for Vatican II’s declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publically whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
In developing its theology for this declaration the Church offers the historical perspective that Jesus Christ and the early Christian Community taught and spread the Gospels through creative means but never through the use of coercion. The Church takes up this tradition of spreading the Gospel message freely and without coercion (although it is mentioned that “there has at times appeared a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or even opposed to it”). But with this declaration the Second Vatican Council takes its stand in affirming the role of the State in providing for the “adequate care of genuine public peace” and the right for individuals and religious institutions to be free to establish and govern themselves “for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.” Related to the social issue we find ourselves currently facing with the park51 project the declaration also states:
Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of the government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own ministries, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties.