George Weigel today speaking to graduates of Benedictine College in Kansas:
one of the great challenges of your generation … will be to rise to the defense of religious freedom in full. And, indeed, what could be a more apt challenge for the graduates of a college named in honor of the saint whose inspired vision and evangelical vision saved the civilization of the classical world when it was in danger of being lost? What better challenge for the graduates of Benedictine College, named for one of the patrons of Europe, whose life-work saved the West as a civilizational enterprise built from the fruitful interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome?
For the defense of religious freedom in full which you must mount must be both cultural — in the sense of arguments winsomely and persuasively made — and political, in that you must drive the sharp edge of truth into the sometimes hard soil of public policy.
What is this “religious freedom in full” that you must defend and advance?
It surely includes freedom of worship, but it must include more than that; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is content with freedom of worship, so long as the Christian worship in question takes place behind closed doors in the American embassy compound in Riyadh. Religious conviction is community-forming, and communities formed by religious conviction must be free, as communities and not simply as individuals, to make arguments and bring influence to bear in public life. If religiously informed moral argument is banned from the American public square, then the public square has become, not only naked, but undemocratic and intolerant. If, on the other hand, religiously informed moral argument is welcome in public life, then we have the possibility of rebuilding, not a sacred public square (a goal the Catholic Church rejected at the Second Vatican Council), but a civil public square, in which tolerance is rightly understood as differences engaged within a bond of civility formed by a mutual commitment to reason.
It is a matter of both political common sense and democratic etiquette that Catholics in public life should make our arguments in ways that our fellow-citizens, who may not share our theological premises, can engage and understand — which is to say, in our particular case, that Catholics should bring to bear in public life the moral truths we hold through arguments framed by the grammar and vocabulary of the natural moral law. That is what John Paul II did at the United Nations in 1979 and 1995. That is what Benedict XVI did at the in 2008 and in the German Bundestag in 2011. That is what the bishops of the United States, and lay Catholics in their millions, have done over the past four decades in defense of life. And if there are some who consider such appeals to the natural moral law a form of tarted-up bigotry, well, we shall simply have to inform them, politely but firmly, that they are mistaken, and then demonstrate why.
Religious freedom in full also means that communities of religious conviction and conscience must be free to conduct the works of charity in ways that reflect their conscientious convictions. This is neither the time nor the place to discuss the problems that have been posed by tying so much of Catholic social service work and Catholic health care to government funding — save, perhaps, to note that these problems did not exist before the Supreme Court erected a spurious “right to abortion” as the right-that-trumps-all-other-rights, and before courts and legislatures decided that it was within the state’s competence to redefine marriage and to compel others to accept that redefinition through the use of coercive state power. What can be said in this context, and what must be said, is that the rights of Catholic physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals are not second-class rights that can be trumped by other rights-claims; and any state that fails to acknowledge those rights of conscience has done grave damage to religious freedom rightly understood. The same can and must be said about any state that drives the Catholic Church out of certain forms of social service because the Church refuses to concede that the state has the competence to declare as “marriage” relationships that are manifestly not marriages.
My fellow-graduates, your defense of religious freedom is going to require the skills of reasoning and argument that you acquired here at Benedictine College. It is going to require that some of you accept the risk and challenge of public service in elective office. And it going to require all of you to support those who take, as their vocation, the defense and promotion of religious freedom in full.
This will be the work of a lifetime. But it must begin sooner rather than later, for the threats to religious freedom among us are great, and many of them are deeply embedded in postmodern American culture. This work will not be without cost. Some of you may suffer various forms of martyrdom in taking up this cause: the martyrdom of ridicule, of being labeled “intolerant” and “bigoted”; the martyrdom of career paths blocked and promotions denied because of your adherence to the moral truth of things; the martyrdom of political defeat, or a judicial case well-argued but lost. Fidelity to the truth can have its costs. Yet as Blessed John Paul II taught young people all over the world, those costs are worth paying because the truth sets us free in the deepest sense of human liberation. Thomas More, patron saint of Catholics in public life, was never more a free man than when he bent his neck to the executioner’s axe in free adherence to the truth.
Read his full remarks here.