As I was pondering what to write for the celebration of our Independence, I came across a headline that a Syrian Catholic priest had been beheaded by jihadist fighters in northern Syria. The death of Franciscan Father Francois Murad (49) was confirmed by the official Vatican news agency. It made me aware of the freedom in our own country as opposed to many, especially in the middle east, where basic human rights are sorely lacking.
One of the most important fundamental principles of human rights, and one that is now protected in the laws of many nations around the world and in global compacts like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), is FREEDOM of RELIGION.
Freedom of religion was first applied as a principle of government in the founding of the colony of Maryland, by the Catholic Lord Baltimore, in 1634. Most Americans know that religious freedom is one of the most basic freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. Frequently called the “first freedom,” freedom of religion is prominent in the American founding documents and gives rise to many other freedoms.
Freedom of religion is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.
Freedom of religion is considered by many people and nations to be a fundamental human right. In a country with a state religion, freedom of religion is generally considered to mean that the government permits religious practices of other sects besides the state religion, and does not persecute believers in other faiths.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is sponsoring another Fortnight for Freedom this year from June 21 to July 4, in response to the still looming threats to our religious freedom.
In 1965 Pope Paul VI wrote a declaration on Religious Freedom: DIGNITATIS HUMANAE (DIGNITY OF THE HUMAN PERSON), which dealt with the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in matters of religion. Here I quote the first paragraph, which is far more eloquent than anything I can say:
A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society. This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires in the minds of men. It proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. To this end, it searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church-the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.
|Prayer at Valley Forge- Arnold Friberg (1913-2010)|
This council greets with joy the first of these two facts as among the signs of the times. With sorrow, however, it denounces the other fact, as only to be deplored. The council exhorts Catholics, and it directs a plea to all men, most carefully to consider how greatly necessary religious freedom is, especially in the present condition of the human family. All nations are coming into even closer unity. Men of different cultures and religions are being brought together in closer relationships. There is a growing consciousness of the personal responsibility that every man has. All this is evident. Consequently, in order that relationships of peace and harmony be established and maintained within the whole of mankind, it is necessary that religious freedom be everywhere provided with an effective constitutional guarantee and that respect be shown for the high duty and right of man freely to lead his religious life in society.
The declaration ends with this prayer- may it be for all of us on this week of our Independence. May the God and Father of all grant that the human family, through careful observance of the principle of religious freedom in society, be brought by the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to the sublime and unending and "glorious freedom of the sons of God" (Rom. 8:21).