Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 1, 2004
Let all of us worship God freely
'Rights language' can impoverish our moral discourse
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
In the comic strip, The Wizard of Id by Parker and Hart, the king addressing the populace from the turret of the castle says: "You're violating the separation of Church and state." One of the crowd shouts back : "What does that mean?"
The king responds: "I dunno. It's just something we always say."
Whereupon, the wizard going into the bar says: "Gimme three bourbons and a tankard of ale." The bartender asks: "What's wrong?"
The wizard replies: "I've just finished reading the constitution 15 times!" The lawyer with his big top hat is also at the bar and says: "And? . . ."
The wizard announces: "I can't find the phrase 'separation of Church and state' anywhere"! The lawyer sips his tankard of ale and says: "that's cause it don't exist!" Upset, the wizard exclaims: "Don't exist?" Then he continues: "You lawyers slather it about like it's pure doctrine!" The others in the bar all resoundingly join in the chorus: "Yeah!"
The lawyer with his cane is preparing to leave and his parting shot is: "So? Would you guys like the king running your church?"
Separation of Church, state
The concept of separation of Church and state is relatively recent, dating back to the Constitution of the State of Virginia, written by Thomas Jefferson, and the slightly later first amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which states that: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or preventing the free exercise thereof. . . ."
Note that nothing is said concerning the various churches' positions, it simply limits the government from establishing one or another church as the "official" religion.
Canada does not have an equivalent governing statement, either in the British North America Act or in the Constitution Act of 1982. What Canada does guarantee every one of its citizens is "freedom of religion." Article two of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of religion and conscience . . .".
In Canada, freedom of religion means the numerous churches and religious bodies of our country are free to speak about what our governments do or fail to do.
Regrettably, there is widespread confusion about what a "right" is. Does the state confer rights upon us? Are they God-given? What is the good that they serve? Human liberty? Human dignity? And finally, what are our rights?
Modern "rights talk" asserts that the foremost right is liberty and, apart from harming others, we believe our liberty to pursue our own concept of the good should be unfettered. In the modern view, rights secure our liberties; the ultimate goal is for each of us to do what we want, when we want, as long as we do no harm to others. It is frequently forgotten that "rights language" can impoverish our moral discourse. It reduces all moral claims to claims of justice. Other entire spheres of moral discourse are forgotten, for example, virtue, duty, doing God's will, natural law, and commandments.
The Church's use of "rights language" differs considerably from modern "rights talk."
The Church is careful to indicate that it understands rights to be grounded in human dignity, in the nature of the human person, which encompasses more than the person's status as a free creature. Such a grounding is essential, for it prevents the irresponsible proliferation of rights that are grounded only in our needs or desires. It combats the lethal modern tendency to enshrine inauthentic exercises of liberty into rights.
The tethering of rights language to traditional moral terminology makes it impossible, for instance, that one could have a "right" to do something at odds with human nature and the dignity of the human person or to do something in violation of the commandments.
If rights are rooted in the dignity of the human person, a dignity bestowed upon the human person by God, then from this perspective, it could be said: that there is no right to have an abortion. Nor is there a right of couples in same-sex unions to marry.
One cannot invent a meaning of sexuality to suit one's wish or taste. It independently carries its own gravitational weight, inner meaning and social purpose. Its very nature is what determines the moral assessment of human sexual expression within marriage and outside it.
The dignity of the human person lies in his ability to understand that the good he is to do freely is indeed a good for him. For a human to do good out of fear or coercion is not to do good in a human and meritorious way. Human dignity lies in the ability to do what is good, freely.
What is ultimately good for the human person is a proper relationship with God. Man is to worship God freely. Thus the Church places such an enormous emphasis on the importance of conscience because conscience is properly allied not with radical autonomy but with the freedom to worship.
Freedom of conscience and of religion is a primary and inalienable right of the human person. Insofar as it touches the innermost sphere of the spirit, one can even say that it upholds the justification, deeply rooted in each individual, of all other liberties. Of course such freedom can only be exercised in a responsible way, that is, in accordance with ethical principles.
Letter to the Editor - 03/22/04
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