On December 7, 1965, Pope Paul VI promulgated Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom. It contains broad affirmations of the fundamental right of religious freedom among men, and as the title suggests, it is the very dignity of man which makes religious freedom necessary.
The document notes that “it is in accordance with their dignity—that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility—that all men [are] bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.” But men can only follow this fundamental moral obligation to seek the truth, in accord with their nature, if they are free from “external coercion” and enjoy “psychological freedom.” The document notes that the “exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God.”
This freedom, then, is based in man’s very structure. The intellect knows the truth, and the will assents to the truth. This is what any free and genuinely human act consists in. Regarding specifically religious acts, “no merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.” Thus, at its most fundamental, man’s religious freedom reposes in the dignity of his speculative intellect, for in free human acts, the will assents to the truths known by the mind. The human conscience has both an aspect of knowing and judging. Thus the Catechism says that “conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC 1796). Conscience involves, fundamentally, a “knowing with,” as its name indicates (con-scientia).
Another declaration—one, perhaps, we are more familiar with—called it “self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In noting the pursuit of happiness, the Declaration of Independence admits that man must organize his life according to some finis, some end. But in putting this pursuit in the hands of the individual, it seeks not to arbitrate between differing conceptions of the human good. Rather, it lets man search for and accept the truth according to the freedom which his nature demands.
The recent threats to religious liberty, especially the HHS mandate, which seeks to force Catholics to provide contraceptive coverage contrary to their consciences, come from a conception of the human good which is a radical rival to the classical conception of the human good.
The Christian understanding of the human person, especially as received and articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, according to Aristotelian principles, sees the human person aimed at the good on three levels of his existence. At the most basic level—inasmuch as he exists—he seeks to preserve himself in being. Inasmuch as he is an animal, he seeks procreation and the education of offspring. Lastly, as a rational creature, he seeks to know the truth about God and to live in society. Man’s moral life unfolds from the apprehension of these goods, in conjunction with the first command of practical reason: to do good and avoid evil.
The HHS contraception mandate plugs us into a system wherein we must forsake our very conception of who the human person is and what goods fulfill and perfect his nature. It thwarts our pursuit of happiness by constraining us to admit a radically different and rival conception of the human good. Make no mistake—our opponents often argue that religion ought to be so private that we do not act according to our own ideas about the human good in the public square. But this does not commit us to a desirable secular “neutrality.” Rather, it commits us to acting out a view of the human good directly opposed to our beliefs.
In all of this controversy, we do well to remember that freedom is an intermediate good—it is good for something, not in itself. This freedom we call freedom for excellence. Man becomes truly and superlatively free when he achieves the goods commensurate with his nature. And it is at these goods which the pursuit of happiness aims.
The good news is that God provides man with goods which not only fulfill his human nature, but, through grace, even elevate it to share in the divine nature. The psalmist sings that, “I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought thy precepts” (Ps 119:45). Indeed, there is a freedom far above political freedom. We receive that freedom in the Holy Spirit, that “glorious liberty of the sons of God” (Rm 8:21)—a freedom which no political authority can violate. Gazing on the face of the Lord, we are converted by His Spirit, raised from glory to glory. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17).