We use the words "freedom" and "liberty" a lot. We typically employ them either to mean freedom from something or the liberty to choose among many choices. If you choose differently from me, well, that's okay. When it comes to many, many things such relativity is just fine. I choose cherry pie and you choose chocolate cake. I like the Raiders, you root for the Jets. I drive a Toyota, you prefer a Chevy. But when it comes to more fundamental matters, this kind of easy-going relativity cannot hold and it certainly cannot hold us together.
Rightly understood, while freedom is freedom from tyranny, unjust oppression, etc., it is more essentially freedom for realizing the end for which you were created and redeemed. If there is one consistent theme I encounter when hearing or reading critiques of Western-style liberal democracy it is this: given this tendency towards relativity, there is no way of arriving at a mutually agreed upon understanding of what is good, or true. If you're a U.S. citizen, however, our nation was founded on an ecumenically arrived at moral consensus. It is only to point out the obvious to note that consensus no longer exists. Among the things on which the founders of the United States agreed was that our experiment in liberty relies on virtuous citizens.
In the United States we experience our disintegrating moral consensus in an intensified way every four years when we hold our presidential election. It's safe to say that we are experiencing it this year in an even more intense way. As a result, many Catholics, clergy and laity alike, rail against our bishops, demanding that they either tell us for whom to vote or at least tell us for whom we shouldn't vote. What our bishops, acting collectively, have given us is Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Not only from the perspective of U.S. citizenship with its emphasis on the citizen as acting moral agent, but consonant with our Catholic faith, it is not the role of the bishop to make our choice for us. Mother Church does not desire to give birth or to raise moral automatons, but truly free children. As good shepherds, it is the role of bishops to assist us in forming our consciences so that we can be faithful citizens of our democratic republic.
It is no exaggeration to write that when it comes to voting, being a faithful Catholic citizen of these United States is becoming increasingly difficult. Voting certainly requires the faithful citizen to make some compromises. In compromising, however, we must act prudently. A well-formed conscience is what enables us to make reasonable and good prudential judgments.
Circling back around to freedom and liberty, it is important to point out, as did those American colonial leaders who declared independence from Great Britain, that these freedoms are God-given, not government-granted. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," our Declaration of Independence proclaimed, "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."
As Catholics we conceive of our faith, at least as expressed doctrinally, as a "'hierarchy' of truths," which "vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith" (Unitatis redintegrato par 11). I think our freedoms, or liberties, often expressed as rights, are hierarchical too. During his lengthy pontificate, Pope St. John Paul II frequently insisted that the first and most fundamental right, without which none of our other rights mean much, if anything, is our right to life. Then, in his faithfully progressive manner, he asserted that immediately following our right to life, our freedom to exist, comes religious freedom. In a letter he wrote to then-U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, a few short months after being elected Pope, John Paul II stated: "religious freedom...is the basis of all other freedoms and is inseparably tied to them all by reason of that very dignity which is the human person."
In our first reading today from 2 Maccabees we read about martyrdom. It can't be pointed out too often that the word martyr means "witness". Bearing witness to the truth is what every Christian is called to do everyday, in all the circumstances of our lives. We can bear witness to the truth, even at the risk of our lives, because in Christ, by virtue of his resurrection, about which he taught firmly in his dialogue with the Sadducees in today's Gospel, the hope that allowed the four brothers to act so courageously in our first reading, we have been truly freed. Christ has conquered our ultimate enemy, death. This is what allows us to live as free people, even under oppressive regimes, as so many martyrs, that is, witnesses, have showed us, especially over the last century or so.
Politics, while important, are not ultimate. Politics are provisional. This means nothing other than that politics are a means, not an end. In Letter VII of his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has Screwtape's uncle, Wormwood, give his nephew, a novice demon, this advice on luring a Christian away from faith
Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacificism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the 'cause', in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacificism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes it very little difference what of worldly end his is pursuingIn place of the British war-effort during World War II and pacificism, one can plug in virtually any political cause.
As St Paul noted in the passage from his Second Letter to the Thessalonians that is our second reading today, "the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. We are confident of you in the Lord that what we instruct you, you are doing and will continue to do. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ" (2 Thess 3:3-5).
In light of Jesus' dialogue with Sadducess on the matter of marriage in today's Gospel reading, it can hardly go without comment that, at least in the democratic nations of the West, with the exception of the moral obligation to protect human life from conception to natural death, there is probably no issue on which Christians are at odds the state more than on the issue of marriage. Given the nature and purpose of marriage, it merits being fostered, protected, and encouraged by the state.
What can we do? The most important thing we can do is bear witness by living our faith fully and joyfully. This certainly means living marriage as the sacrament Christ intends it to be. Given the horribly unjust HHS mandate that seeks to force Catholic institutions to pay for contraceptive coverage in violation of our consciences, which mandate also has the effect or restricting religious freedom merely to freedom to worship, we must strive to live faithfully. Faithfully and joyfully living the Gospel is what gives any arguments we we make in the public square credibility. We must remain faithful even as doing so begins to cost us personally. Fidelity, not worldly success, is what matters in the end. More than Letter VII of Lewis' Screwtape Letters, St Justin Martyr's Second Apology, addressed to the Roman Senate, addresses the connection between a Christian's hope in Christ's resurrection and faithful citizenship.