ETHICS IN THE NEWS - FOCUS
One news story brought into focus through a Q & A session with an expert at the Center for Ethics
Today's Focus is with Dr. Cory Labrecque who talks about the Catholic Church and its religious liberty campaign
The Catholic Church has recently announced a broad reaching international campaign to promote dialogue and activism when it comes to religious liberty. The campaign will be carried out over the next few years. This story was covered in last week’s Ethics in the News. As stated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, religious liberty concerns will now be addressed in church services, printed materials, and in the activities of many Catholic organizations.
Although the Church has recently been embroiled in contentions with President Obama and the U.S. Government over new health care laws, discussions about religious liberty have always been part of Catholic teachings and community life. Below is an excerpt from a conversation with Dr. Cory A. Labrecque, the Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in Bioethics and Religious Thought at the Center for Ethics. Dr. Labrecque has done extensive research in the fields of religion, ethics, and medicine, with a particular focus on the Roman Catholic Tradition.
Are these types of campaigns new to the Catholic Church? How is religious liberty rooted in Catholic tradition?
In 1888, Leo XIII produced an encyclical, Libertas praestantissimum, in which he identified liberty as the “highest of natural endowments.” This important concept grounded much of the discussion (actually it was a rather heated debate) leading up to the Church’s declaration on religious liberty, called Dignitatis humanae, that was promulgated on the eve of the closing of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The text speaks largely to the rights and responsibilities of the individual, Church, and State regarding the free practice of religion – and the protection of that practice – in society. In fact, the Council writ large sought to address a whole host of pressing concerns that questioned the relationship of the Church to the world around it. I think the principal motivating inquiry was: “how are we to be the Church in these times?” And, for today: how are we to be both American (or whatever nationality) and Catholic in this country – and in the world – in the twenty-first century?
We live in a culture of paradox. Although the Church can appreciate this (humans are at once fallen and redeemed, mortal and immortal, stewards and tenants, etc), there are certain pairings – of ostensibly contradictory dimensions – that the Church does not admit into its worldview. To be for freedom, but against the free expression of religious identity is one example. That said, it is important to note that the Church calls for religious liberty within due limits and recognizes that society has a right and duty to protect itself against abuses committed in the name of this freedom. A crucial question in regard to the Affordable Care Act, for instance, is: whose liberty is being threatened?
Tensions arise when a country makes rulings against a religious tradition or the tradition makes rulings against the holdings of the country. The Catholic Church confronts these tensions by summoning its members to seriously engage such matters in conversation.
What does the Affordable Care Act have to do with the new campaigns for religious liberty?
The Affordable Care Act gives the debate a new context, although the conversation about the role of the Church in medicine and public health began two millennia ago when the disciples bore witness to a Jesus whose ministry – and I am thinking of the healing ministry in particular here – was peculiar in its inclusivity. The question “whom should we care for?” translates more generally into “how should we relate to others?” and, in a more challenging way, “how should we relate to others who have different ideas than we do?” The conversation is not new and Roman Catholics – in fact, peoples of every religious tradition or of no religious tradition – have been asking questions such as these as soon as they found themselves living in community with other human beings who espoused different convictions.
What is the nature of the campaign and how does it relate to Catholic theology?
As the name of the conciliar text suggests, Dignitatis humanae teaches that religious liberty is primarily rooted in human dignity. For the Church, religious liberty is not just a right; there is also a duty that flows out of this freedom. In discussions that are often oriented around the rights of the human person, the concepts of duty, responsibility, and accountability sometimes become peripheral.
The Church has long proclaimed that it is an individual’s moral obligation to seek truth in religious matters. This extends to every human and every group. The right comes down to being able to seek this truth free of coercion. Within due limits, no man or woman should be compelled to act against his or her religious convictions or restrained in acting in accordance with their religious convictions. I think what we are seeing here – in regard to the Affordable Care Act and other efforts on part of government – is a State and a Church that disagree on what these “due limits” constitute.
In terms of duty, the Church believes that there is a collective responsibility at stake: the individual, the community, the Church, and the State each have a hand in protecting the Common Good and are, accordingly, called to safeguard the right of each human person to religious liberty. Not only do they all share the responsibility to safeguard that right, they also have a responsibility – the Church says – to cultivate an environment wherein the religious life will bear the fruits of justice and peace.
How do you see the tenets of this campaign playing out?
It is, perhaps, not enough that we can talk about freedom and dignity, rights and duties. The real question is how to translate these ideas into action.
The Church is attentive when laws, policies, and/or regulations require citizens to act against their convictions or to cast aside their religious identities. And, so, ecclesial authorities have begun engaging pastoral communities, informing parishioners – that is individual Catholics in the context of their communities – about the state-of-affairs, if you will, and echoing the teachings of the Church in regard to religious liberty. Active communities, as such, will come together and mull over what is happening, how the Church – and we as the Church – read what is happening, what we believe, and what this requires on part of our living a faith that is to be living, conscious, and active.
Is there room for interpretation?
The Church is sometimes looked upon as being static, of disallowing exchange, and of discouraging constructive, critical engagement in the issues at hand. I am not sure how I would survive as a student and teacher of the Catholic tradition if the Church disdained the very gifts we believe to be from God: intellect and free will are indispensable for the formation of conscience. My experience in the Church has been exceedingly stimulating. It has been, for me, all about study, exchange, debate, and the commitment to social justice. In this case, we do not simply discuss how the Act might challenge the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics, the body, or health, but how the conversation has much broader reach. In this way, religious liberty must also be discussed in light of other important contexts, like immigration, for instance.
The process is less mechanical, less robotic than some might imagine. We do not see here an imperative from the ecclesial authorities commanding Christians to unite and protest against something of which they may know little; mobilization first requires an engagement of those gifts – free will and intellect – that the Church believes to be God-given. Conviction grounds action, I think.
Is it possible to find common ground?
Religious liberty for all is what the Church is saying. The human person is a relational being and, so, the Church properly situates the individual in the context of community when addressing these issues. The US bishops remind us that this is not simply a Catholic issue, or a Jewish issue, or a Muslim issue, or the issue of any other religious group. It is an issue that binds us as a people living in this country in this age.
The crux is whether religious liberty can be safeguarded while maintaining the integrity of the community itself.