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True and False Freedom


Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori

Archbishop William E. Lori

As the fortnight for Freedom culminates in a prayerful celebration of Independence Day, this is an occasion for Americans to give thanks for the wisdom of the Founding Fathers who recognized in the Declaration of Independence that our fundamental rights are given not by government, but by our Creator. It is also a good time to reflect on how our liberties are protected in the U.S. Constitution. Preeminent among these is religious liberty, which is now very much at risk in our increasingly secular culture. After all, when culture becomes disconnected from religion and claims of moral truth, our understanding of freedom itself becomes distorted.


By now we are all familiar with the risks to religious freedom in the United States. Among the greatest is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that would force conscientious employers and religious organizations to fund or facilitate abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception. Keep in mind that the Church is not seeking to force anyone to do anything; it is simply defending the freedom to follow Catholic teaching in the workplace, a freedom that federal law and policy has broadly accommodated for a long time. We are not seeking to expand that freedom, just to maintain it against the raw use of administrative power to curtail it.

The Church, together with its ecumenical and interfaith partners, is facing an uphill battle. To be sure, there has been an outpouring of support from across the country, and we have reason to believe that lawsuits to have the mandate overturned stand on firm legal ground, especially regarding the very narrow government definition of what organizations are religious enough to deserve an exemption. To qualify under the current narrow exemption, a religious organization must hire and serve only its own people. In a word, it must be inward-looking. But our Church, from the very beginning, has sought to extend itself to all nations and serve the common good through schools, charities, hospitals and other forms of social outreach.

Even if we win these lawsuits, though, religious freedom will continue to be challenged by our secular culture. Many voices at the forefront of public discourse — including much of the mainstream media — reject the Church’s claim that religious freedom hangs in the balance. That claim has been termed “bogus” and “phony” by prominent newspapers. Is this merely a knee-jerk aversion to the Catholic Church and her teachings? I would suggest that something deeper is at stake, namely, competing notions of what freedom itself is.


For many cultural pundits, freedom is simply the ability to do what one wants, to enhance one’s life as one sees fit. The only limitation is that one must not obstruct the rights of others to make the same choices. This very secular version of freedom is detached from the moral law — from what is true and good — and from God, the author and giver of freedom. It goes beyond saying that our fundamental freedoms are inscribed in our hearts by our Creator. Rather, the secular notion of freedom says that we create our own version of what is true and good and choose accordingly, so long as we do not violate another’s right to choose similarly. In this view, freedom is not only highly individualistic but it is also relativistic, since it does not acknowledge a fundamental law protecting the good and the true by which all human beings are bound. When this notion of freedom prevails, it is the strong — those who have money, power and influence — who end up imposing their views on others.

According to the perspective of the administration and editorialists, the Church’s freedom extends only to worship, preaching and teaching. It does not extend to putting its teachings into practice through its own institutions when they hire or serve people of other faiths. But when freedom is reduced to individuals choosing whatever they want, so long as it’s a choice condoned by the government, religious liberty is severely limited. Any notion of freedom that links an individual’s choices with a moral law is seen as “bogus” or “phony” because it is not consistent with the secular notion of freedom. And the Church’s assertion that it is free to run its own institutions according to its own values, even when these are countercultural, is roundly rejected by pundits and power brokers.

Dominican Father Servais Pinkaers (1925-2008) made the distinction between “freedom of indifference” and “freedom for excellence.” The former is the exercise of free will without regard for moral truth. Freedom for excellence, on the other hand, is the use of free will in a way that looks toward what is true and good; it is the freedom to choose what one ought to choose. If we want to preserve the Church’s freedom to fulfill its God-given mission and our own freedom to choose what is true and good, then we must hold and convey to others a true notion of freedom.

St. Paul wrote: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). We do well to take this advice as we celebrate the birthday of our nation.