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A Chill From Nebraska Freedom's Other Side

The True Meaning of Freedom

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.

A Chill From Nebraska

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 suicide.

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.

Freedom's Other Side

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.-- J.B.F.

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