Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
I was thinking about the prayer we are praying every day (p. 6) for the Fortnight for Freedom and there is one part of a line that catches my attention, that part in which we ask for courage to make our voices heard “on behalf of the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.”
I marvel at the way in which this statement is at once simple and profound. It isn’t a demand for special treatment, or seeking an affirmation for a judgment that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. It has nothing to do with what is considered by divisive spirits to be “liberal” or “conservative” according to today’s tyranny of opinion and self-interest.
It is a plea for the basic right to live in the most simple of ways as human beings who seek to be persons of faith and morals. It has long been the perennial teaching of the Church that persons have a right to know (freedom of education) and free to apply that knowledge to our human acts according to our own properly formed consciences: to do good and avoid evil is a personal choice.
But the key point is the formation of conscience. To be a person of integrity, the Church teaches, you must make choices according to your own conscience. You form it, you follow it. The same option may yield different results between different persons with equivalent integrity. Looking around today, how many people do you recognize as being properly formed in the moral life?
Further, there is no such thing as self-formation for relational persons (you can’t make it up on your own); we rely on truth, goodness and beauty as the transendent ideals to which we seek ascent, and this formation comes from outside of us. We are shaped by our life experiences and the persons with whom we share our earthly spaces, above all, by the revelation of a loving God. As always, this right to freely choose comes with a corresponding duty: to be able to follow your conscience, you must do all in your power to make sure that you are properly formed in truth and virtue.
It is at this point that the argument usually stalls out. How dare you presume to tell me whether or not I have properly formed as a moral person and judge my choices? But you see, guidance isn’t what the prayer is about. That is the next step. We’re still at the starting point of being able to make the choice at all.
The whole issue about religious liberty isn’t about freedom to be right or wrong. It is about whether or not we actually are provided the freedom to choose. Can a person be forced by law to act against their conscience?
Isn’t it remarkable and bizarre that the whole pro-choice argument suddenly becomes ours? Freedom to worship also means freedom to not worship. Freedom to do the wrong thing also means freedom to do the right thing. Otherwise it isn’t freedom.
But that freedom must not be taken away.
It is a complex meditation about the love of God, actually, and the age-old question: Why does God permit sin? Because if he didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to freely choose not to sin, and we would be slaves. But God loves us so much that he wants us to freely choose to love him, not be forced to do so.
Early on in the religious liberty debates over the HHR Mandate the press derailed the Church’s message by short-circuiting the Church’s position, convincing the world that the Church’s position was trying to enforce right over wrong. Sadly, it seems that the world bought it. But if we are praying for the courage to make our voices heard on behalf of “freedom of conscience for people of all faiths” it is clear that we are merely asking for the basic right to at least choose what we believe to be right, and not be left with only the slavery of choosing that which is wrong. Keep praying!
May God bless you.