The True Meaning of
Independence is the genius of American
culture. In our best moments we cherish the freedom of all people.
Reverence for liberty and democracy, desire for broad
participation and consultation, love of diverse opinions and freedom
of expression: These are gifts that we
Americans offer the universal Church. Yet recent events
in our Church reveal that some Catholics have a long
way to go in accepting freedom's demands. And some trends in our
society at large show that other Americans shouldn't be pointing
fingers. We all have a lot to learn about freedom.
The spirit of freedom inspired our
founders to craft the Bill of Rights--a seal of freedom on the
nation founded by the Declaration of Independence. Our First Amendment
is one worth pondering this Independence Day: "Congress shall
make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech,
or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government for redress of grievances."
Our founders recognized that human
freedom is God-given and cannot be taken away (the rights to life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness are "endowed by [our]
Creator" and "unalienable," wrote Jefferson). This
was no invention of 18th-century liberals. After all, we are made
in the image of God, to love, and what is love without freedom?
Theology and doctrine express this great insight: that humans
are free at the core of our being. We are children of God.
Yet there are those who fear freedom.
By now most people are aware of what
has been happening in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. In March
Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz established an automatic excommunication
for those who are members of groups he perceives to be in opposition
to the Catholic Church. Those in his diocese were given 30 days
to sever themselves from the listed groups. The bishop's blacklist
includes conservative and liberal groups who are in disagreement
with the Vatican for one reason or another. One wants to ordain
women, another wants to return to pre-Vatican II liturgies, some
are pro-choice when it comes to abortion, euthanasia or assisted
The positions of these organizations
could be the topic of 10 editorials. The point here is what the
bishop's action has done to the Church in Lincoln and beyond.
The bishop's action rallied strong reactions from both ends of
the spectrum, which have, in turn, led to other reactions. Fellow
bishops, for the most part, quietly distanced themselves from
the Lincoln prelate. (A neighboring bishop did offer to re-communicate
any Lincoln Catholics who sought refuge in his diocese.) Prayer
vigils supporting one side or the other were held in various parts
of the nation.
A group of liberal reformers, "We
Are Church," launched a campaign to collect a million signatures
supporting ordination of women, optional celibacy and lay participation
in bishop selection. In turn, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland,
president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, appealed
in May for those seeking the signatures not to deepen divisions.
The hard-line approach, Bishop Pilla correctly sees, will only
polarize people further.
"Because I said so!" might
be a parent's last resort for very young children who skip their
naps, but the appeal to authority doesn't work well among American
adults. Freedom demands respect and dialogue, give and take, speaking
and listening, openness of mind. These qualities are sorely lacking
in the Nebraska affair. Persuasion wins where edicts fail. Persuasion
honors the demands of freedom.
Irresponsible freedom, though, is dangerous.
Our American love of independence has moved far beyond our founders'
dream of freedom. Our nation's founders thought in terms of the
common good--in fact, four of our United States actually retain
the official name "commonwealth" (can you name them?).
The earliest citizens of our nation knew that individual freedom
is tempered by the good of all, that if everyone did everything
he or she wanted to do, society would suffer. Chaos would reign.
Today our nation not only faces the
rampant consumerism that grabs all and uses all with abandon.
We not only are ruining our ecology without thought of the good
of future generations. We not only isolate the poor from fuller
freedom. We also are coming to grips, as a nation, with some of
the most fundamental legal issues Americans have ever faced, the
human life issues.
Are we free to kill helpless and vulnerable
humans, whether unborn or aged and infirm? Are we free to help
our friends or our patients kill themselves? Are we free to commit
suicide? These acts do not honor the true meaning of freedom.
True freedom is freedom in relationship
to God and in relationship to each other. True freedom has limits
and boundaries. The exercise of freedom demands respect for moral
law, for God's plan for the human race and God's Church. We must
prohibit acts that keep others from
enjoying their rights. But prohibited acts must not include free
association, free assembly and free speech. That is as self-evident
as the fact that we all are created equal, and that we all have
certain unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.
Let us honor true freedom this Independence
Day by applying what we've learned in our society to the life
of the Church. We will find unity by using persuasion when possible,
encouraging freedom of speech and working together for the common
good. And no more excommunications, please.--