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home : bishop : columns

5/5/2016 9:00:00 AM
BISHOP'S COLUMN
Religious freedom: a fundamental right rooted in humanity
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER


The publication of the Declaration of Independence some 240 years ago provoked a chorus of guffaws from continental elites, many of whom scoffed at the naive notion that humans could be trusted to govern themselves.

One critic called the declaration "the delirious dream of republican fanaticism" that, if sincere, would "put the axe to the roots of all government." That would be the revered Dr. Samuel Johnson, who found it the rankest hypocrisy that "we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of [slaves]."

Truth does not lose its claim to allegiance when those to whom it is revealed fail to honor it. Even its harshest detractors might grudgingly concede that the Catholic Church did not invent sin. Its moral authority to claim the right to teach and practice the truth it firmly believes is not based on the pristine virtue of all of its members.

Time and again along the march of history, the shadows of sinners fall across the feet of saints. Jesus and Judas ate at the same table. At His most critical hour, Christ's virtual betrayal by all but a few of His scattered disciples did not bode well for the future of His mission.

Nothing would save a nascent Church from its own disgrace except an unprecedented act of grace that began to dawn on Easter morn.

Through the resurrection, humanity's totally inept attempts to assert its own self-mastery are transformed through a redemptive reprieve of total divine mercy, unmerited forgiveness and unconditional love. We are set free from our slavery to sin and fate by nothing less than the decisive power of divine dispensation.

To ransom a slave -- as the Exultet proclaims at the Easter vigil -- God gave away His Son. Jesus becomes the slave who is bound, scourged, nailed and impaled, so that we might be set free from sin and its progeny.

This is the ultimate freedom: Death is vanquished forever! Fear is useless now, for no one and nothing should be lost.

This happenstance, if such it may be called, produces the oddest effects. A Church that at once becomes the haven of grace -- a house of a thousand doors, to borrow the metaphor of famed author G.K. Chesterton -- is therefore and thereby the home of sinners, a place where reconciled outcasts belong.

Even if at times the Church has been known to "note the sinner" (a euphemism for excommunication), it is the same Church that welcomes the repentant prodigal back with open arms.

We continue to witness the withering stigmata that the unholy actions of some of our own inflict on the repute and equanimity of the whole flock. But we consign none to the guillotine. Following the lead of a Savior who, when put to the cross, did not curse but only blessed, we are a people who take care of sinners, lawbreakers and pariahs, even as we condemn the sins that defile them.

We seek the image of God in humanity's most disfigured, for they are our sisters and brothers. This is our faith in the redemptive power of grace, living now the life of heaven as though we had already died and risen -- as indeed we have, through baptism, into the dead and risen One.

When we Church, in turn, claim a right to preach, teach and profess this resurrection faith which reaches out to all humanity, regardless of class, state, race or creed, it is because of who we really are. And we will defend the freedom of every faith to do the same, as Vatican II (in "Dignitatis Humanae") affirms; for we, like our country's founders, hold certain truths to be self-evident -- not the least of which is the liberty to follow one's faith and conscience.

Religious freedom is not rooted in privilege earned or entitlement granted, but something more radical to the nature of humanity, even a fallen race. In a nation whose Constitution assigns no power to government that is not enumerated therein, what resides in the very soul of our nature is inalienable and cannot be usurped by government.

Our Easter faith reminds us of the freedom that we might suspect ourselves all along to have been hard-wired for, given our deepest longings and passions. It also affirms the extent to which the creator of all life will go to assure us that our basic intuition to freedom is no delirious dream (sorry, Dr. Johnson), but a taproot as real and fundamental as the loving God who fashions our hearts after His -- hearts that will not be hewn by the tyrant's axe.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)





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