Catholic Social Doctrine: Freedom of Religion and Conscience
between "religious freedom" and "freedom of conscience," and what might be called "religious license" or moral libertinism.
"Religious freedom is not a moral license to adhere to error," nor should it be viewed as "an implicit right to error." (Compendium, No. 421) (citing CCC 2108)
Conscience is ordered to the truth and to good, ultimately God who is the source of both truth and good.
Properly understood, therefore, freedom of conscience and of religion "is not of itself an unlimited right." (Compendium, No. 422)
What, then, are the just limits of this freedom?
"The just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority through legal norms consistent with the objective moral order." (Compendium, No. 422)
The "objective moral order" is a reference to the natural law. Therefore, there is no religious freedom or freedom of conscience that would justify a right to breach the natural moral law. Consequently, the just limits of religious freedom or freedom of conscience may include prohibitions of practices against, or offensive to, the natural moral law.
For example, it would not be a violation of religious freedom or freedom of conscience to prohibit polygamy or family intermarriage, human or animal sacrifice, or religions that practiced offensive sexual religious rituals or which advocated assassination, violence, or disobedience to positive laws that were in accord with natural law. It is not a violation of conscience to prohibit homosexual "marriage," or to have laws against abortion.
The reason behind imposing just limits on freedom of religion and of conscience relates to the public order and the common good: "Such norms are required by 'the need for the effective safeguarding of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also by the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally by the need for a proper guardianship of public morality.'" (Compendium, No. 422)
Since the natural moral law binds all men regardless of religious confession, and since religious freedom and freedom of conscience find their source in the natural moral law itself, it is reasonable to impose upon all men limits based upon that natural moral law. In other words, religious freedom and freedom of conscience (which are founded on the natural moral law) do not provide freedom or license for beliefs or acts that are contrary to that very same natural moral law.
Finally, the Church recognizes the intrinsic historical and cultural ties that a religious tradition may have with a people, and recognizes that the common good might allow for "special recognition" of that reality. These would be justified because of those particular religions' ties to those countries. But even so, religious freedom and freedom of conscience survive such "special recognition."
Such norms are required by "the need for the effective safeguarding of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also by the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally by the need for a proper guardianship of public morality." (Compendium, No. 423)
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: religious freedom, religious liberty, human rights, human nature, religion, social doctrine, conscience, Andrew Greenwell,
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