There is a great deal to be said (and done) in light of today’s statement from the USCCB on religious liberty: “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” Everyone should take the time to read it in full. The bishops remind us that violations of religious liberty can have vivid and painful consequences. The faithful must be aware of the stakes, for they are high indeed. The bishops write:
Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas.
What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and robust civil society—or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it. Religious believers are part of American civil society, which includes neighbors helping each other, community associations, fraternal service clubs, sports leagues, and youth groups. All these Americans make their contribution to our common life, and they do not need the permission of the government to do so. Restrictions on religious liberty are an attack on civil society and the American genius for voluntary associations.
As Jesus warned St. Peter, discipleship sometimes means that someone else leads us where we would rather not go. (John 21:18) Discipleship always leads to the Cross, and sometimes more than figuratively. So the bishops remind us that the most serious threats to religious freedom place upon us, the Faithful, a burden far greater than many of us would care to admit, and may well demand of us more courage than we have ever had to show for the sake of our faith:
It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.
It is essential to understand the distinction between conscientious objection and an unjust law. Conscientious objection permits some relief to those who object to a just law for reasons of conscience—conscription being the most well-known example. An unjust law is “no law at all.” It cannot be obeyed, and therefore one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal.
Like I said, there is much to be done. We can all start by reading the bishops’ statement and taking it prayerfully to heart.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, and coordinator of the Tertio Millenio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.